Summary: It is three or so days since Dean made his deal with the crossroads demon. As angry as he might be, Sam still loves his brother and decides that they need to take a break from hunting, so he plans one. Dean, on the other hand, thinks they are on their way to hunt a chubacapra down and has no idea where they are really going. This only works because Sam controls the maps and Dean is on auto-pilot.
Disclaimer: I don't own them, because if I did, this story would be true.
Dean had both hands on the wheel as he guided the Impala over Wolf Creek Pass, some distance out of Durango, Colorado, and wondered, as he listened to the Eagles on the radio, what colitas was and if he'd know if he chanced to smell it on some dark, desert highway. Which this most certainly was not. It was a mountain highway, with mostly well-placed passing lanes, and plenty of markings about grades and recommended use of brakes, and the slightly whacky looking runaway truck lanes, which didn't look like they'd be of use to anyone, let alone a rampant 18-wheeler. The sun was well set, with the high-altitude darkness coming on at an alarming rate. He looked over at Sam, who was buried in his map, but who didn't quite need a flashlight yet. He wanted to ask, what is colitas, do you know, but then didn't. He should know. It was in an Eagles song from the seventies, and probably had to do with something illegal. That or a plant commonly found in California. He didn't know; didn't want to broadcast his ignorance. So he drove on, he and Sam, in silence.
Which wasn't unusual normally; he and Sammy could go for hours on the roads, the only communication between them being grunts and points, all undercut by the hum of the Impala's engine. The way of marking time was at rest stops, which, if Dean needed the use of, he would pull over. Or if they needed gas, he would pull over. If Sam needed to stop, he would say it, "Next stop," and Dean would pull over at the next turn or ramp or exit where they could see a gas station from the highway. If you could see it, you could get in and out fast, and not have to deal with the not very reliable off highway signs, the ones that always seemed to list lodging and food, but not gas.
But now, after what Sam had once referred to as Dean's Dumbass Deal, what would normally be the occasion for Sam to lay into him, but good, had become more silence than laying into. The devil, or one of his minions actually, was going to take Dean in a year. Less than a year now. Three days less, or was it four, the number of days it had taken them to get their shit together and leave Wyoming for Arizona, hot on the tail of a chubacapra. Chubacapras weren't real of course, and both he and Sam knew that. But Sam had found some evidence that something else on the outskirts of Tucson had been using the chubacapra as a duck blind of sorts, killing local livestock under the cover of night. It was when a local rancher and his horse had been brought down, that the newspapers had picked up the story and added enough detail for the Winchesters to know that something else might be walking the desert at night. There was enough of a road trip involved, and what sounded like some mighty interesting hunting at the end of it to almost make Dean forget what he'd gotten himself into. Almost. Not that he regretted it, having Sam safe and warm beside him was worth any price. Any.
Alongside him, a big rig was pulling past the Impala, so Dean kept well over to the side of the road, and wondered why the rig couldn't wait till the next passing lane. Or maybe the driver hadn't seen the sign that said the next one was only a mile up the road. Didn't matter. The driver was picking up a clip, seemed to know the road, so Dean took his foot off the gas and let the truck move ahead. Then, when the truck had pulled up far enough and looked ready to pull back into the lane, Dean reached down and flicked his brights. One, two, three. The truck zipped in front of him with the ease of a sports car, and then Dean heard Sam hold his breath.
Sure enough. Blink, blink, blink. This from the rig's tiny taillights, as a thank you for the space and for the signal that it was okay to move in. Then the truck zoomed on.
"Good, "said Sam. "I always hate it when I don't see those fairy lights."
"You gotta call 'em that?"
"That's what they look like to me," said Sam.
"But fairy lights?"
Sam sighed. "Look, you got this huge, ugly monster thing, chuffing out black smoke and howling every time one of those guys changes gears." He waved at the disappearing back end of the 18-wheeler, and Dean figured that Sam had extra reason to hate big trucks so he kept his mouth shut and let Sam continue. "And then, when you let 'em in like that, they tap their break lights."
"Yeah," said Dean. "So?"
"You got this dirty, smelly ass of a truck, and then you get these…little, I dunno, delicate little lights."
"Delicate lights. On a semi."
Sam waved his hands at the dash, and Dean could hardly see his face now in the mountain darkness.
"It's the contrast, Dean," he said at last. Dean knew Sam was rankled at having to explain it all, having it come out stupid like it did. He tried not to laugh and failed.
"Okay, listen, smart ass," snapped Sam, "and see if you can concentrate on what it means metaphorically."
"Meta-four-what?" He knew what it meant, of course, but there was nothing, no, nothing that made Sam madder than Dean acting dense.
"Metaphorically, Dean. Big truck. Scary, mean, monster thing. Little lights. Little soft thank yous, like, you can see inside the monster and see that it has a heart. Feelings, even."
"Sweet Jesus," said Dean. "Can I pull over and barf now?"
"If you like," said Sam, and Dean knew that Sam was done trying. Thank goodness.
They drove in silence the rest of the way to Durango, through the dark pines and tumbled grey rocks, which surrounded the highway so completely that it almost seemed like the mountains would swallow it up once the Impala had passed over it. But such thoughts were for dreamers, which Dean was not, so he kept his hands at the ten and two, listened to the radio, and followed Sam's directions to the EconoLodge once they reached Durango. The EconoLodge had no pool, but that was okay, since they had no swim trunks. Luckily the room (on the ground floor) had two queen beds, and Dean snagged the one by the door and the window by throwing his duffle on it. Then he opened the window to let the mountain air in, and nodded at Sam that he could have the first stab at the shower. Dean would take his shower in the morning and they would hit the road as soon as they could after that. It was a full day's drive, ten to twelve hours to Tucson, and they were taking the back roads through Colorado and Arizona because, according to Sam, I-25 had major construction all the way down to Las Cruces.
"Pizza, Sam?" shouted Dean from his perch on the edge of the bed. He had the clicker in his hand and was roaming channels as fast as he could. If there was free porn available, he would find it.
"Yeah," came the reply as the water was turned on.
Pizza was the easiest of meals, especially in a strange town, as the food could come to them, and leftovers made a good breakfast. Dean leaned over to snag the phone book from the stand between the beds, and dug his cell phone from his pocket. It was easy enough to order the big pizza with extra cheese, sausage, mushroom, and onions. They did not, alas, have garlic as an option. He ordered two liters of soda, too, for good measure, then tossed the phone book on the floor. Perhaps once in Arizona they could find some of that Indian fry bread people always talked about. Or some dive taco stand with tacos good enough to order more of.
Picking up the clicker, he discovered no porn, and that only the weather channel really came in very well. The suit and tie man talked about the trend across Iowa (flooding), the trend across Washington State (rain), and the trend across the Southwest, including Arizona (blue skies). Well, at one hundred degrees, that's what they ought to have. He looked at the map on the screen. The weather guy was pointing out temperatures across the area, right where the Impala would be taking them in the morning, along Highway 160 and 89 to Flagstaff. She could handle the upper-ninety degree temperatures, and she could handle the roads well enough, but he would make sure, at the very next gas station, that her belts and tubes were all in working order. Sam would holler (silently, most likely) at the delay, but where the Impala was concerned, Dean took no shortcuts and Sam knew it. The car had gotten them out of more than a few unfriendly towns, and was worth looking after.
Sam came out of the shower just as the pizza came, dressed in the same clothes, hair dripping a dark ring around the neckline of his t-shirt. As Dean paid with cash from his wallet, Sam pulled the box out of the delivery guy's hand and started eating a slice, standing up. With the bottle of soda in one hand, Dean shut the door after the delivery guy, and looked at his brother.
"If you wanted somethin' to eat, you shoulda said so, I woulda stopped for something before now."
"Didn't know I did, till now," replied Sam, his mouth full. "Got any ice for that?"
He was looking at the soda, and then at Dean. Then at the TV, where the weatherman was still talking.
"Why you watching that for?" he asked, taking another large mouthful of pizza.
"It's the only thing I could get," said Dean, putting the soda on top of the TV. "Find somethin' else if you wanna."
He tossed the clicker on the bed and grabbed the ice bucket. A hungry Sam was liable to take your head off as well as your arm and eat them both, and then demand seconds. Not slamming the door after him, he walked out into the mountain's darkness to find the ice machine. Easy enough, if you followed the rattle and hum. He found it at the end of the line of doorways, just as the walkway turned into parking lot. He filled the bucket, walked back, and knocked for Sam to open the door.
Which Sam did, after a pause. He'd managed to find the TV Time channel with reruns of everything old that had ever been on TV. They sat on the edge of the beds, ate pizza, drank soda on ice, and snickered at Sgt. Bilko's antics. It was a good evening, companionable. Normal. Like hundreds, if not thousands of evenings like it. Dumb TV show, just-about-crappy road food, strange new room that would feel like theirs come morning when they left it. And the silence, which usually developed from fighting the road hum that echoed in your ears, or the heat, or the distance they had come. But tonight, it felt more like a weight. A weight Dean wasn't sure which one of them was carrying. Nor what it was made up of. Not exactly.
His deal with the devil, his dumbass deal, was probably part of it, along with the fact that they (he) had actually killed the demon that had killed mom. That Dad had traded his soul to for Dean's was another part of it, along with the fact that neither Sam nor he had any right to the air they were breathing. Or did they? The philosophical problem was more Sam's deal than his, and it might have been a heck of a lot easier to deal with if Sam would just yell at him about it. Or even talk, which Sam always wanted to do. But except for some terse comments in Wyoming, no one was saying anything.
He put the pizza box on the floor. Morning would come soon enough, with a drive unusual enough to make him feel like a pony stretching its legs in the first field of spring. He'd never been along 160 as it crossed through the desert. Nor 89 as it tucked itself into Flagstaff. He knew I-40 well enough, having crossed it back and forth a few times to get to California.
"Hey, Sam," he said, lifting his head, "where's that map."
Sam stopped chewing long enough to take a breath. "It's in the car, why do you need it."
"I just wanna see where we're going tomorrow. Besides you always bring in the maps, so you can mope over them."
Sam put his pizza down on the bedspread and wiped his hands on his jeans. Looking at the TV, he said, "I told you. 160 to 89, then we hit Flagstaff, and follow I-17 and then I-10 at Phoenix, all the way to Tucson, I told you. It's simple, what do you need a map for."
"I just wanna look," said Dean.
"You wanna look, you go out and get 'em."
Sam was not moving. He was watching the TV intently, and Dean began to wonder if this was how he was going to be punished for being weak enough to want his brother around for as long as he could, by Sam being the most uncooperative, unhelpful, stubborn asshole that he could possibly manage to be. Alright then. Fuck the map. Sam would direct, and Dean would drive. And the chupacabra they met up with it at the end of the trail would bear as many lead-lined holes as Dean could drill into it.
"Fine," he said, shucking off his sneakers.
"Fine," said Sam, still looking at the TV.
He grabbed his shaving kit and headed into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. Brushing his teeth was almost soothing, though the dampness from Sam's shower was making him sweat. He looked at the shower, at the one towel still hanging unused, and shook his head. His reflection in the mirror shook its head too, looking tired at having to think at all, let alone about the problem of figuring how to turn on the shower in a strange place. Some idiot somewhere had determined that every motel shower was turned on different, and it was seldom that the boys encountered the same type of mechanism twice. That's why Dean liked to take his showers in the morning. When he was sharp and could figure it out. Bending to spit, he turned on the taps to sluice water over his face. That helped cool him down, but as he stood up again, his reflection looked like it had tears on its face. Dean wiped them away and opened the door, using the corner of his sleeve to wipe his chin.
"You were in there long enough. Thought you were going to take a shower in the morning."
"I am, cause I'm sure you used up all the hot water, and there won't be any more till the morning."
There was no answer to this, but there didn't have to be. It was an old joke, an old dumb joke, because for all the shitty dumps they'd stayed in, only one had run out of hot water. And that was because the hot water heater had exploded. Hot water was to be found in abundance from coast to coast. What was missing was why Sam was being so distant. Wasn't talking to him, wasn't even looking at him.
Dean stood there, staring at his younger brother, feeling the darkness and the weight that loomed all around. It was killing him, but he was going to have to say something.
That much from him was tantamount to a sonnet from Shakespeare and both of them knew it. Sam placed his hands on his thighs and turned to look at Dean, his wet hair drying into a band of swirls around his ears. His expression was quiet, the mouth a firm line. He had something to say, that was obvious, but for some reason he wasn't saying it.
"I just wanna make sure, is all," said Dean, shrugging.
"Yeah," said Sam, finally. "We're okay. I'm just buzzed from the road and…well, and everything."
The everything that Sam wasn't talking about would come spilling out of him sooner, rather than later, but in spite of that, in spite of the unusual fact that it wasn't spilling out of him now, Dean felt satisfied. Sam's we're okay had been honest, and maybe Dean wasn't up to having any deep conversations anyway. Never, truth be told, but Sam tended to insist on them, every so often. More often than not.
Morning loomed, the road beckoned, and beyond that, beyond shooting and killing something that deserved it, Dean would not make himself think. He stripped down to his boxers and t-shirt, pulled off his socks to tuck them into his sneakers, and pulled down the tightly tucked covers and sheets. The polyester bedspread he pulled back far enough so it would fall on the floor. The suckers made him itch. He threw his extra pillow over to Sam, and slid under the sheets. Sam took the clicker and turned the volume on the TV down, and Dean closed his eyes. Lying on his back, if nothing else happened to keep him awake, he would be asleep in five. Four if he was lucky, if Sam didn't start laughing out loud at Lucy or anyone. Three if he held real still. And then, beyond that, sleep.
A crackerjack mechanic by the name of Russ at a grotty gas station just outside of Durango let Dean use his rolling pallet to check under the engine. He even loaned Dean the little bulb to check the levels in his radiator. They pulled on belts together and poked at the fan while Russ admired the Impala, and then convinced them to take extra bottles of water as they crossed into Arizona.
"You won't mind the water once it gets so hot, even if it will be warm by the time you get there."
"Get where?" asked Dean, wondering by Russ's tone whether Russ had some idea of where they were going.
"Hey, Dean," said Sam, leaning out of the window on the passenger side, "you gonna fill up or what? Daylight's burning."
"Yeah, okay, Captain Impatient," said Dean. "Get your lazy ass out here and fill her up while I pay."
Without another word, Sam unfolded himself from the passenger seat and did as requested. Which was quite odd; Sam balked when it came to the Impala, either because he didn't know a wrench from a spanner, or because he was leery of messing with Dean's best girl. Dean watched him out of the corner of his eye as he went inside the crumbling white building and paid Russ for the gas, and then tipped him a fiver for being so helpful, one car lover to another.
By the time he got out, Sam was in place, the windows had been washed and the tank filled with gas, two liter bottles of water behind the driver's seat. They were ready to go. Dean was more than ready to go. A Sam willing to lay hands on the Impala made him jittery. It just wasn't normal.
"So, which way?"
"Go…right." Sam unfolded the map to lay it out on his lap. "Yeah, it looks like….follow 160 west to where it ends at 89 and then turn left. Uh, south." He folded the map and tucked it under his thigh. "Pretty straightforward."
"Can I see the map?"
"You don't need to see the map.'
"And why not?"
"You just don't, okay?" Sam gave him a narrow-eyed glare and a silent scoff. "Don't you trust me with directions anymore?"
Pushing Sam another inch would only bring an explosion. Dean gave himself one second to think about this. While Sam should explode, or at least start talking, which would be better than the current wall of silence, he, Dean, would probably enjoy a long quiet drive. He told himself he would.
"So," he said, putting the Impala into drive and pushing her onto the blacktop that was 160, "the area we're going over is what again?"
"John Wayne filmed his movies here," said Sam, without a second's hesitation. "As did Roy Rogers, and the Lone Ranger and Tonto. I think Back to the Future was filmed out here too, but don't quote me on that one."
Dean let himself be impressed. While old Westerns weren't his favorite, the movies always contained a whole lot of wide-open sky, which suited him just fine. He eased the car up to 65 and felt her open up. She always did like going fast.
Once outside of Durango completely, the highway narrowed to two lanes of rumbly concrete with painted lines that looked worn and blistered by the constant sun. Towns they passed through had names like Tec Nos Pos and Red Mesa and were made up of bundles and blips of singlewide trailers and pens of goats. Tec Nez Lah was hidden in a cool hollow in the red stone carved out by a little river, but after that it was just miles and miles of open. Way, way open. The kind of country Dean would expect to see in a movie about a guy stranded in the desert. Or about one of those pioneer idiots who had gotten separated from his wagon train. Or, better yet, about one of those guys who had gotten staked out in the desert on an ant pile, who had managed to claw his way free, and was now stumbling across the desert towards home. Yeah, that was what kind of country it was. Nothing but sky, and stone, and light. Sometimes they had bluffs on the left of them, sometimes the bluffs were on the right of them, stretching from the horizon ahead to the horizon behind.
"Is that a buzzard?" asked Sam at one point.
Dean craned his neck to look up through the windshield. He couldn't really look for long, the Impala had taken herself up to 70 without him seeing it, but there was a large black shape with wings making circles against the blue. "I dunno," he said. "Could be a vulture."
Neither one of them really knew what either bird looked like.
"Isn't there something called a condor?" asked Sam. He leaned behind Dean's seat to grab one of the bottles of water. "They're supposed to be ugly."
"Well, I can't tell from here whether I'd want to date it or not," said Dean. Sam handed him the water, he took it, took a slug, and then handed the bottle back. "Could be anything."
"Yeah," said Sam. He was silent, drinking some water as the bird flew out of eyeshot. Then he said, "I don't see any cactus, do you? Isn't there supposed to be cactus in Arizona."
"You mean the kind like in the cartoons? With the arms?" Dean gave the passing scenery a harder look. "You're right. I don't see anything like that. Further south, near Tucson, I know there's some."
The miles of open country sped past their windows as they watched. At one point they both saw a pair of dogs racing through the scrub towards a herd of black cows. Dean wondered where the dogs had come from, and then saw, about ten miles ahead, a small group of houses, and figured the dogs had come from there. Mighty big back yard when two dogs could roam for ten miles and not have any shade. Then the land flattened out as they neared Kayenta, and they both began to sit up as a large, ship-sized rock rose out of the sand.
"Shit, check that out," said Dean, pointing through the windshield.
"It's huge," said Sam.
"And right out of a John Wayne movie."
Then, there was another, blocky like a building. And then, after that, another. And another. There must have been fifteen or twenty, stretching out to the horizon, some chimney shaped and rose colored, others buff and tan, shaped like the sails of a square-masted rig. All of them tall, and hard edged, as though someone had carved them with a blade and spaced them apart on purpose. And between each formation, the land was as flat as a flour-dusted countertop.
"Can we stop and take a look?" asked Sam.
"I dunno, I think the shoulder is too soft. It looks like sand. I'll wait till there's a turnoff, then we can stop."
They both were looking for a good spot. Up ahead on the left, Dean could see a large, red shape that looked like it was made out of stacked bricks in the shape of a slice of red cake. In front of it was a group of tan-colored buildings. As the Impala got closer, he could see the whole area was deserted and that the red cliffs that rose up behind the buildings gave a kind of shelter from the sun. Maybe it had been an old trading post or something. The parking lot looked like jumbled black gravel, but it was solid, at least, and would give them a chance to get out and have a real look. He looked for anything spiky that might snag his tires, and then pulled in. Hell, they could have parked on the road if they'd wanted to; the length of blacktop was deserted in both directions. Parking and turning off the engine, he looked at Sam.
"There you go," he said. He swung open his door and stepped out of the car, shutting it gently behind him. The desert air echoed the sound around them and bounced if off the rocks. There was almost no wind and the heat grabbed his head. As Sam got out, Dean could see he felt it too, the long, empty silence, the scurry of dry air only a vague wish, and the soft glimmer of heat shimmer as the road thinned on its way into the unseen distance.
"Dude," said Sam.
"Seriously," said Dean.
It was a vista view of rocks and strange formations and sky that some would have paid millions for, and many millions more had seen on the big screen. Dean thought he could recognize some of it, but whatever movies he'd seen, far too many really, had jumbled the images in his head. It was one of the few times he wished they had a real camera, though no lense could probably do it justice. The camera in his cell phone wouldn't even come close. So he had to content himself in the looking, as he always did.
"Who knew?" said Sam into the quiet.
"Not me," said Dean. Never in his whole life had he imagined it would look like this.
The wind picked up a bit, and a funnel cloud of red dust started up and grew tall, whisked its way across the road only feet from them, and swept itself into ghost bits as it swung past the red rock.
"Did you see that?" asked Dean.
"Yeah," said Sam. He was smiling now, probably for the first time in days. "A real dust devil."
"Real up close," said Dean. He smiled too, and looked at Sam to share it with. But Sam was looking away, off towards the north where the dust devil had come from.
"Okay, then," said Dean, the coolness of the moment being sucked out of him by the heat and Sam's distance. "Let's get a move on if we want to make Tucson before tomorrow."
"Yeah," said Sam. His voice sounded hollow. "Time to get a move on."
It was only around ten o'clock, though by the heat, it could just as well have been high noon. There were no bank thermometers handy, and they did not have one in the car, but it was hot. Climbing to well past ninety degrees, he figured. By the time they got to Tucson, what with no air conditioning in the car, they would be well baked and well frazzled by the wind coming through their open windows. Which was not really different than any other drive, really. Just a little more extreme. He hoped, at the very least, that they would get to see some of those cactuses with arms.
They got back in the car, Dean started up the engine, and the Impala continued down the road. Part of his mind worried about getting a flat tire, as he only had one spare, the other part of his mind worried about the Impala overheating, though Russ had assured him that because of the flat terrain and the fact that they had no air conditioner, the Impala wouldn't be any more worked than if she'd been crossing over the hills of Missouri. The other part of his mind tried to ignore the fact that Sam was not talking to him at all, even less than usual, and was staring hard out of the passenger window. Past Kayenta there was only flat, sandy land dappled with scrub to look at with the occasional odd looking gravel piles. There were almost no other cars, and certainly no one was walking by the roadside, looking for a lift. He couldn't figure for the life of him what Sam was staring at so intently.
Presently, after an hour or so of monotonous brown, Sam said, "89's coming up, and 160 will end. Take a left."
They entered the limits of Tulba City, and Dean pulled into a gas station.
"Why are we stopping?" asked Sam.
"I need to pee," said Dean, getting out. "And my baby needs gas, do you mind?"
Sam stayed in the car, silent. Was silent when Dean had finished and got back in.
"What's your problem?" he asked.
"Don't have a problem," said Sam, not moving his mouth hardly at all.
Dean shrugged. He could drive, or they could argue, he wasn't up to both. Tucson was too far away and they had too far to go for any of Sam's dumb snits. He pointed the Impala in the right direction, and away they went. At the end of 160, they came to a T in the road. Only the 160 highway had the stop sign, cars, all three of them, zoomed past on 89 going south. He turned left and followed them. The road began to rise and fall a bit, which was more interesting than the flatness of the desert pan they'd been in. The rocks were smaller, as well, though closer to the road, and layered with different colored ribbons of gravel.
After some miles of roly-poly brown hills, they passed a sign that said Cameron City Limits, and shortly after that, a little brown sign with an arrow pointing to the right. Just as Dean realized what the sign said, Sam said, "Turn at the next right."
"But," he said, the gears in his mind clicking as they slipped, "that's the way to the Grand Canyon."
He turned the wheel at the next right, his feet working the pedals by rote, his hands numb blocks, his stomach doing a quizzical dance. It was almost as if he couldn't get enough air.
"It is," said Sam, in a voice that sounded as though it were coming from miles away, "and we have reservations."
That was it. Dean pulled the Impala off to the side of the road, just in front of the huge sign that said Grand Canyon National Park.
"It's the Grand Canyon," he said. Beyond turning off the engine, he couldn't move.
"I know it is, Dean," said Sam. There was a smile in his voice.
"What about the chubacapra?"
"It can wait. And in fact it will have to wait. We're here for two nights."
A large truck went past, rocketing the Impala with its wake of air. Dean could hear the click of the engine as it cooled, the slamming of his heart against his breastbone, and beyond that, the slight creak as Sam shifted in his seat.
Getting out of the Impala was done without thought, without, even, any regard to the fact that he was barely off the road itself, and that there might be traffic coming. He only had eyes for the sign, could only taste the dust as his throat closed up. Something was filling his lungs like a shout, and all of the twisted, wretched thoughts he'd had about Sam for the past four days slid away, leaving only the bright, shining bone of why he'd gone to the crossroads in the first place.
Sam had taken great pains to hide this from him, and it could not have been easy, either to come up with it or not to give it up as they got closer. Thus was explained the lack of map sharing. And the urgency to get a move on at the gas station, for even Russ had known where they were going, and Sam had not wanted Dean to find out. It also explained Sam's constant staring the other way; Dean had known his brother all his life, and would have seen the glimmer of the surprise in his eyes.
He only vaguely heard the passenger door open and close, and knew by the crunch of gravel that Sam was walking up to stand beside him. But he could not look at his brother, could only stare at the sign, feeling his chest hitch, feeling his eyes grow hot.
The fucking Grand Canyon.
And Sam. Brother Sam.
He tried to clamp his mouth against any movement, any sign that would give away what it all was doing to him. Tried not to swallow. No one could know. Not even Sam.
But then Sam did as he always did, or at least he tried. Reached out and touched Dean on the shoulder. That long arm could reach far and so the breadth of Sam's side was out of reach for Dean, but he swung anyway, knocking Sam's hand high in the air.
"Don't touch me," he said, his throat feeling like he'd swallowed gravel.
"The Grand Canyon," said Sam, and Dean could hear the echo of gravel in Sam's voice. "We're staying at the Red Feather Lodge, doesn't that sound cool?"
"Just like something out of Disney," said Dean. He scrubbed at his face with his hand, covering his eyes with his fingers. His palm came away damp and he wiped it on the back of his jeans. "I can hear ole Walt now," he said, trying to swallow the now baseball sized rock in his throat, "going on and on about that freaking Bright Angel Trail."
"Well, we're not doing that," said Sam, and out of the corner of his eyes, Dean could see Sam swiping at his face too. Or maybe he was just pushing his hair out of his eyes. He coughed to clear his throat. "I for one am not riding anything that small down a trail that freaking steep."
This made Dean laugh, though he didn't want to, though perhaps that had been Sam's intention. The thought of Sam's long legs dragging on either side of a mule was pretty funny.
"What are we doing?" he asked, letting himself cough and swallow at last.
"We are," said Sam, his voice coming out with more strength, "going to dinner at the most expensive place in town tonight, after which we are watching the sun set over the canyon, and then tomorrow, we are taking a smooth water tour in a pontoon on the Colorado River."
"At the bottom of the canyon?" Dean felt his whole body open with surprise.
"That's the best way to see it, I hear."
He could now look at Sam, at Sam smiling, the green eyes thick with stars, his mouth open, teeth bared, almost laughing out loud, the body unable to contain the joy within it. Dean felt the same.
"How long have you been planning this?" he asked.
"Well," said Sam, "only since…well, only for a coupla days. I figured, what the hell. You got it coming, and so do I."
"Yeah," said Dean. It was all he said, but he knew that Sam knew what he meant.
"Boy," said Sam, shaking his head. "I sure was tired of keeping it a secret."
"That I do not doubt," said Dean.
As they looked at each other, they each gave the silent nod that said, this is okay, everything is okay. But it was almost too much like a chick flick moment, so Dean looked away while Sam coughed.
"Alright," said Dean, his excitement rising. "Let's go!"
He rubbed his hands and opened the Impala door. Now when he got in and settled himself behind the wheel, Sam was looking at him. The map was partially folded on the seat between them. His heart thumped in a pleasant way. How many years had it been that they'd driven back and forth and never, ever stopped? Too many. Sam knew it too. Dean started the engine. It was about time.
The road to the gate to the park was just about as nice and tidy a road as he'd ever been on. It was solid, clean blacktop, as clean as if someone had scrubbed it that morning. The white lines and yellow lines were crisp and new, and even the scrub brush growing on either side looked as if it had been tended to recently. Which would have been quite a task, as there were acres and acres of it. He'd seen pictures of the Grand Canyon; it was hard to quite fit in those pictures with what he was seeing. The road was rising, but everything was flat.
About halfway up the hill, Sam said, "Holy shit, check that out."
Dean let his head swivel to the side. There was a huge ravine to their right that seemed to be about as big as any Dean had ever seen. It glowed like it was tinted green. It disappeared behind a formation of rocks and then reappeared again, deeper than ever.
"I think that's the--" said Sam. He checked his map. "Yeah, that's the Little Colorado River Gorge." He put the map back down. "It's freaking huge."
"And that's not even the big daddy," said Dean. He wanted to put on the gas and go faster, but the speed limit was set at 45, and he didn't want to risk getting a ticket. Not today.
Finally, after miles and miles of scrub, they rounded a hill and then topped it to find themselves at the gate of the Grand Canyon.
"My palms are sweating," said Dean, wiping them on his jeans.
Sam just smiled and handed him some cash. "Pay the woman," he said.
Dean handed over twenty-five dollars, and the woman in the dark brown ranger hat handed him a map.
"Follow this, she said. "It'll show you where all the major overlooks are."
"All?" asked Dean. He turned to Sam. "I thought there was just one."
Shrugging, Sam said, "Me too. Guess I haven't read up on it enough."
"At the first shop, is a gift shop and small snack bar, as well as bookstore, and of course, the tower.
Of course, mouthed Dean to Sam. The tower. Whatever the hell that was.
"And be sure," she continued, "to take advantage of the bus system. It's free."
As they passed through the tollbooth, Dean said, "I thought we were going to our hotel first."
Sam looked at the map again. "Yeah, you have to go through the park to get there from here." He showed the map to Dean, who followed the squiggle as Sam's finger traced it.
"Well, that's not too far. Shouldn't take us more than half an hour."
It took them four.
Their first stop was Desert View, and as they pulled into the parking lot and Dean was about to remark that they had yet to see anything resembling a canyon, he caught sight of red rocks in the distance. But then, this was blocked by the pine trees, and he couldn't see anything. He parked the Impala under as much shade as he could find, silently urged Sam out of the car and quelled the pressing need to run as fast as he could to the canyon's edge. But then Sam, somehow catching this need, jerked his chin at Dean and so the two them picked up the pace, passed by the shop and the café and the restrooms, and hurried as fast as the path would allow down to the tower they could see rising in the sky. It was made of golden stone, at least two stories high, right on the freaking edge.
And as soon as Dean could make sense of what it was, for he had never heard of any tower at the canyon, he saw the canyon's edge.
"Son of a bitch," he said.
Sam sighed. "Yeah. Son of a bitch."
One of the mothers directing her too-near-the-edge brood gave him a dark look, but Dean ignored this. He couldn't hear anything anyway, only the rush of blood in his ears and the slough of the wind over the stones. There was a little gravel path leading out to a cement covered point, bound by steel railings that looked rather like the prow of a ship. But no one was doing any king-of-the-world posing there, for on the other side of the railing was a sharp almost one mile drop. Dean walked out as far as he could, with surprisingly few people en route, and took it all in.
The canyon was huge. Freaking huge. It was deep, and there were stones stacked on top of one another as high and as low as they could go. All jagged, all exposed to the air, all giving voice to the silent time that had sliced them open. Red stones, buff, rose colored. Brown. Shades of green in the shadow, the air muting the colors as the distance widened to the other side. And far below, the tiny snake of a river, silent, brown tossed with tan, bending and curling between the rocks.
There was a placard behind them that no doubt gave information such as depth and age and distance and other geeky things like that. He'd expected that Sam would stop to read the placard and would appear beside him eventually to spout off what he'd read. But Sam stopped right beside him, their shoulders touching, and was silent, as if he too could simply not believe what he was seeing.
They stood there for a full five minutes.
"That is about the biggest thing I have ever seen."
"You and me both," said Sam. "I mean, will you look at it? It's huge, Dean."
"I know, I know."
Dean took a deep breath, almost feeling the depth of it like he never could with an ocean. Or a mountain either. For all mountains were so huge, they never looked like you could get inside of them. Like you could with the canyon. Like it could swallow you. It was making him dizzy.
"We should get a camera. One of those disposable ones."
Sam thought about his a moment and then looked at Dean. The rushing of air out of the canyon was pushing his hair back from his forehead. "Any picture we take--" he began.
"Yeah," said Dean, finishing it for him. "Wouldn't do it justice."
It was on the tip of Sam's tongue, Dean knew, to suggest buying a little photo as a souvenir, although it's not something any of them ever did. Sure they might buy a shot glass or something, or a shirt that happened to have the name of the local attraction on it, if they needed a shirt. But to buy a souvenir, just to buy one? It was almost unthinkable. And there was no room to store it, really. Not when every inch was needed in the Impala for something that could be put to use.
They looked at the view instead of either one suggesting it, and breathed in the dry air, and looked at the smoke drifting up in grayish swirls from the other side of the canyon.
"Looks like a fire." Sam shaded his eyes to cut back on the glare. "A big one."
Dean looked around. Surely everyone could see it, but no one was worried. He wasn't worried because they were on the other side of the canyon than the fire, but, he would have thought, that in a park like this, they'd be putting out fires right quick.
"A controlled burn from a lightning strike," said a man, walking past them. He was beet red from the sun as if he'd been out in it all day, and didn't quite have the sense to put a hat on. "They figure it helps cut back on the underbrush, and it's good for plant grown and stuff."
Having delivered this missive, the man moved on, and Sam made the frown he made when trying not to laugh out loud.
"Bet he was waiting all day to tell someone that," he said, his voice thick with it.
Dean let himself laugh. "Yeah. His one factoid, and he hands it out as often as he can."
They moved back from the point to let other people have a look, and walked up to the tower, which turned out to be half museum and half shop. A set of stairs looped up along one wall, and as Sam and Dean climbed them, they discovered a large landing and another flight of stairs. And then another, and another. They lost count. What had seemed to be a two story tower made of stone was somehow larger on the inside, large enough to hold five floors, each with huge windows and scopes for viewing. The scopes took quarters, which between them they had none, so they contented themselves by climbing to the top and pressing their noses against the glass.
The side of the tower went straight down into the canyon.
"Think this thing will ever collapse?" he asked Sam.
"I don't think it would dare," came the answer.
"Think of what Walt would say."
It was the voice that he'd been hearing in his head every other step, the sonorous tones of Walt Disney narrating every aspect of the park in some tourist movie he'd been subjected too more than once as a kid. It had been an old movie too, with the sound track coming through warbled and the film yellowed with age. Walt had been a big fan of the canyon, he recalled, somehow remembering this, when the remainder of his early school years was a grey void.
"Yeah, you're right," he said. "Old Walt would simply not allow it."
In addition to which, though he did not say it, Walt had not, for all he was such a square, sold the place short.
They climbed down the tower, ignored the stuff for sale, and walked up the trail to the parking lot and got back in the car.
"What's next?" asked Dean.
Sam consulted his map, sliding it open on his lap with all the love and affection he could give it. "We have…Navajo Point, Lipan Point, Moran Point, Grandview…it goes on and on and on. I'm telling you. This is not going to take us half an hour, Dean."
Dean started the car, thinking in the back of his mind that they would get tired of the view, mighty quick, that surely each new stop would not show anything very different. But each stop, each view, stepped up to show him exactly how wrong he was. The view changed with the angle, the colors changed with the light. The clouds scudded overhead, more unidentifiable birds flew over on the warm currents of air, and people from all over the world stood in awe of the massive slice in the earth.
Some people stood too long in front of the many placards that Sam was obviously dying to get an eyeful of. Others took too many pictures or talked too loudly in foreign languages. Some were timid and wouldn't go close to the edge, others posed their women as close to the edge as they could convince them to get. But all in all, people were generous and shared each view with them as if it were theirs and brand new, never before seen miracle. He hated to use such a sentimental word like that, and certainly wouldn't have done so aloud, but that's what it was. A freaking miracle. The fact that he was here with Sam was another one, just as freaking huge.
They were at Grandview Point when he thought this. Standing on the edge of one of three cement-covered viewing trails. They could see the other side of where they'd been, could see where the river curved as it went west, could see the North Rim and the almost blue smoke that was puffing its way east.
"Guess there was a hotel here once, or something," said Sam, returning from the latest placard. "Got tumbled in a fire, it said."
Dean didn't want to think about it. Didn't want to think about miracles, or deals, or demons. Not so close to the edge as he was, though part of him wanted like crazy to bilk the demon out of what she thought she had coming to her. The demon had said that if he tried to welch out, Sam would drop dead. Of course, clarification was needed for whether this included suicide attempts or accidental death. It would be very cool to trick the demon out of his soul, but any way he did it, he would not be able to control the repercussions. He stayed alive for the next year, Sam stayed alive for a good long life, he had the demon's word forever.
To distract himself he read one of the little information posts, while the sun beat down and the dense hot wind moved through the pines. A woman, a 24-year old doctor and runner of the Boston Marathon, had gone into the canyon some years past, and died after having made about every mistake in the book. She was healthy as could be, but had not had the correct map, enough food and water, enough gear, had underestimated the temperature inside the canyon, and when things had gone south, she had separated from her companion. The companion had waited out the heat of the day and then made it out of the canyon alive, but the woman's body, the marathon runner, had been found tumbled on the path.
There might be something to the idea of waiting out the heat of the day, but how could that help him? He couldn't, metaphorically speaking, find a shade tree and sit there for a year, he had work to do. None of his jobs, especially not his main one, had changed. His head ached. He turned away from the information post. And caught Sam looking at him.
"Ah," said Dean. "It's the heat. That's all."
Sam seemed to take this in, take it for what it was and probably realized there was more too it, though he didn't say anything. He looked over the crowd of people which grew and shrank even as they watched and nodded.
"Well," he said. "I think this is the last point we can get into without taking the bus."
Dean hated taking busses and both of them knew it.
"So, we could go check into our motel, have some dinner, and take in the sunset."
"You're a regular tour guide, you know that?" He slapped Sam on the back and moved back from the viewing area. He was partially in the shade now, and knew that Sam couldn't easily read the expression in his eyes. The heat was getting to him, this was true, he was thirsty, and he missed the open road. The canyon was big and grand and amazing, but there was an edge to it. Step off it and everything ended. He didn't want things to end.
"Let's go," he said. "I'm starving."
That decided it. They moved across the parking lot, got back in the car, and drove through the park, almost glad to not stop anymore, almost glad to not be looking at the view.
"It's almost too much, isn't it?" asked Sam as Dean turned along several one lane roads to get to the highway heading out of the park. Just as they turned left, Sam almost yelped.
Dean stopped the car.
"Holy crap, it's them!"
Dean saw the mules through the trees, all lined up at a rail only a second later.
"It's freaking Brighty of the Grand Canyon," said Sam.
"It's a book," said Sam, and he opened his mouth to explain it. Then he shut his mouth. "Never mind. Just a kid's book, about a donkey or something, in the Grand Canyon."
"Okey dokey," said Dean, letting himself smile. So sentimental, sometimes, was Sam. The mules were just mules, fat and sassy, tied to a hitching post and looking at each other with quizzical long ears. Then he turned left, onto the road out of the park, and the mules were hid from view.
Sam consulted his map again. "Just a mile along," he said. "It'll be on the right."
Dean drove through the rows of spicy-scented pines, along the tidy black road as directed, content to be driving again, content to be on flat ground that did not suddenly drop away at his feet. The motel showed up as promised, though the only thing cool about it was the ancient neon sign in the shape of an Indian's head. The rest of the motel was as ordinary as any they'd ever seen.
"This is it," said Sam, as Dean turned in.
Parking the car and getting the duffels and cases out and checking in was an old habit. Dean let Sam take care of the signing in, just in case Dean's name was too close to the top of any official list. Then they carried their gear up a flight of stairs to their room, which was the first left in the hallway.
"That's close," said Dean, as he watched Sam use the card key. "Close is good."
He meant, close to the parking lot, in case a quick exit was called for.
Neither could remark on the room, which was, as all other motel rooms were, decorated to be bland, with white sheets, and had a bank full of lights scattered all over the place.
"Do you want the window, Dean?" asked Sam.
Dean looked at him standing there with his leather lap top case in one hand, and his leather duffle in the other. He knew what Sam was saying. Either bed was as safe or unsafe as the other bed, because it didn't matter. The demon would wait out her time, and in the meanwhile, Sam knew that Dean liked to sleep with the windows wide open.
"Yeah, okay," he said, turning to toss his duffle on the bed furthest from the door. He didn't look at Sam while he did this; didn't want to see the expression that would either be surprise or sympathy. He wasn't up to either one.
But when he turned around, Sam was on his phone, checking their reservations, asking about what time sunset was. "Yeah, okay," he said. "Table 58 sounds good." He shut his phone with a click. "If we go pretty soon, we can eat and then be outside in time to watch the sunset."
"Not from the restaurant?" asked Dean.
"No, the guy at the desk, Al, said you can't see the canyon from the restaurant, no matter what all the travel writers have said."
"Okay," said Dean, "sounds good to me."
When they got to table 58, however, they found that Al was wrong, at least partly. Their table was right by the window and indeed, they could see miles and miles of canyon through the trees.
"Still," said Sam, "we'll go outside for the sunset, right?"
"Yeah," said Dean, nodding. He wanted to focus on the menu, and hang the fact that the prices were through the roof. He saw elk steak, and roast duck, and garlic mashed potatoes, and things cooked in cream and wine. He could not decide, and his stomach wanted an answer. Which came in the form of hot bread and soft butter. Cool water with slices of lemon. Mushroom soup. Drinks. All that Sam ordered without consulting Dean. It was perfect, in a way. He was out of his depth at a place like that where the waiter tried to put his napkin in his lap, and where a cute girl in a fancy apron came by every few minutes to take away empty dishes and scrape crumbs off their table.
"I'll take the elk steak," he said, when forced to choose.
"Rare, sir?" asked the waiter.
Dean looked at Sam and shrugged with his eyebrows. Sam shrugged back. "Sure."
Which turned out to be the best way to eat it. He'd never tasted anything so soft and buttery and bloody, and he inhaled the entire thing. Sam's dinner as well, garlic-seared salmon went just about as fast. As did all the bread, all the soup, and the bottle of wine. Dean was stuffed. And then the waiter brought out the dessert tray.
"Chocolate, chocolate, and chocolate," said Sam, and Dean could hear that his mouth was watering. Then he asked the waiter, "Do we have time before sunset"
"Certainly, sir," said the waiter. "I'll put a rush on it for you, just to make sure."
The rush was perfectly timed. He was able to shovel in the apple tart with ice cream as fast as he wanted, refused the coffee, and hustled Sam to finish his death by chocolate desert so they wouldn't miss it. They paid with Robert Johnson's credit card, and then rushed out.
In all his born days, Dean had never seen anything like it. The canyon had layers of stone upon stone, each layer taking the slanting sun in a different way, sending the light up to hit the back of his brain like nothing else had before. The sky above had its own layers from light blue to bruise purple, the edges hazed with smoke from the controlled burn and the spear points of rock temples catching the light and spinning it as it slowly got darker. A wind kicked up, pulling the voices of the people around them into a million tatters and casting them high until they disappeared. It didn't matter that the crowd grew around them, it didn't matter that they weren't alone. The sense of miracle came upon him again, and while he tried to shove it away, he knew for a fact that this sunset came a far second to the miracle of his brother standing beside him to share it.
He clamped his jaw and shoved his hands in his pockets. He had to stop. He was not going to make it if every step of the way he got down on his knees to thank the nothingness around him. But looking at Sam, and the gold and blue reflection from the canyon in his eyes, Dean knew that he would do that, if it was called for. Sam would go on, and that was as it should be.
"Quit staring at me, Dean," said Sam. "Watch the sunset."
"'m not staring at you, jerk," said Dean turning back to look at the canyon, smiling.
The sunset was brilliant.
As was driving out of the park in the dark and getting back to their motel to hit the hay. White sheets had never been so cool, so welcoming. He listened to Sam take a shower, and didn't worry about towels or hot water or looking for porn. Instead, he stripped down to his boxers and opened the windows as wide as he could. Wind sloughed through the pines at the edge of the parking lot, and there was a faint, blue smell of chlorine from the hotel pool that mixed with the cedar and balsam. Then he closed the curtains to cut the light from the streetlights, and climbed into bed. Tossed the extra pillow over to Sam's bed, and let his head sink back. Let his back ease out, let the tightness in his chest flex away.
Presently, he heard Sam come out of the shower. "Aren't you going to brush your teeth?" he asked.
Dean could only grunt. He was half asleep. In a year, teeth wouldn't matter anyhow.
The morning, come early at six o'clock, brought a small snag that wrinkled Sam's perfect little surprise.
"A bus?" asked Dean, eyebrows rising. "We have to take a bus to go on this river trip?" He spread his hands wide, but kept his voice low as they stood in the lobby where the bus driver was checking her list. The bus was going to take them all to the bottom of the Glen Canyon dam, where the float trip was to start.
Sam sighed and in his eyes, Dean could see that he'd known about the bus all along, but had hoping that Dean would be okay with it. That he was not, and never would be, was casting Sam's happy-as-shit smile into a downward curve. Well, Dean could fix that. All he had to do was shut up and get on the bus.
"Hey, alright," he said, "let's go."
There came the smile back again, eyes sparking beneath dark bangs, and that dipping motion of Sam's chin by way of thank you. Besides, how bad could it be?
The bus driver's name was Cozette, Cozy for short, and she loaded them up with smart professionalism, announced that she had been driving for over twenty years, and had managed to accumulate awards for the most difficult and complicated driving tests ever devised for bus drivers. "I have, basically, a black belt in driving," she announced, starting the engine. And off they raced on the road at the canyon's edge.
Dean didn't mind the speed. What he minded was the fact that there were no hands on the wheel. Cozy held a microphone in one hand and pointed at everything with the other. And she had the uncanny ability to know exactly how to stop right next to the brick wall that separated the road from the mile long drop. Dean had chosen the driver's side to avoid such a view, but Cozy insisted on stopping, with that side out, each and every time things got particularly breathtaking. How the bus got down the winding road from the park's entrance must have been due to the fact that the bus knew the way, because although Cozy certainly did, she never looked at the road to make sure. Dean felt the sweat popping on his brow the second they hit the flat part of the desert.
"You okay?" asked Sam.
Of course he wasn't and never would be. Not on a bus, not on a plane, and especially not with anyone else but Sam or Dad behind the wheel. He'd been driving too long with them to be used to a stranger at the helm. This was a quirk he'd never managed to bring himself to fully explain, but which, obviously, showed. He made himself smile and nod and looked out the window at what was supposed to be the painted desert, but with the way the sun was angled, it was just miles and miles of washed-out brown.
"How many more hours?" he asked Sam.
"Two," said Cozy, having heard him. "So just sit back and relax and let me take care of the driving!"
Dean made himself sit back, and wished that he was anywhere else. The road they were on made it feel like the bus was at sea, swerving to miss motorcyclists, oozing up and down with the rise and fall of the asphalt, and generally jerking from side to side every time she passed someone. Which she did often. But he kept quiet. Let Sam sleep, focused on the brown desert sliding past his window. And thought about lunch.
By the time they reached the checkpoint they needed to pass to get to the bottom of the dam, he was wiped from the ride. On top of which, both he and Sam had dressed as they normally did for a hunt because they owned no other clothes. They were the only ones wearing long jeans and sneakers. The only ones who had not brought little bags full of gear, sunscreen, hats, cameras and the like. So with empty hands and sweating armpits, they got off Cozy's bus, and onto Ralph's bus. Ralph's bus would take them down the long corridor in the stone that surrounded the dam, right to the dam's base.
"But I'll be there at the Ferry to pick you up!" announced Cozy, her voice bright with promise.
Dean shuddered. Maybe they'd drown first.
The bus, fully loaded, entered the tunnel leading down at such an angle, it felt like the bus was going to tip over forward.
"I do not like it, Sam-I-am," he muttered to himself.
"What?" asked Sam, fascinated by the churchly light coming in from the boreholes.
"Nothin'" said Dean. They were almost there, and it would be okay. He had made it here in once piece, and Cozy might be able to tip the bus, but he'd make sure he landed on top of Sam instead of the other way around, so that was okay.
Ralph was a calmer driver than Cozy, but then, in the darkness, there was nothing to point at. As well, he kept both hands on the wheel at all times, and was smooth and quiet as he turned the bus around in the little parking lot at the bottom of the tunnel. When all the passengers got out of the bus, Dean could see their necks were craning up to look at something. Dean got out and looked up too. They were, by golly, at the bottom, the very bottom of the massive concrete structure that was the Glen Canyon dam.
"Dude," said Sam.
"Seriously," agreed Dean.
Someone with a construction helmet led them down the catwalk to the waiting pontoons. That's when it started getting cool, both physically and mentally. The temperature, which had been hovering near one hundred at the top of the dam, settled itself down to a delicious and watery seventy-five. Plus, the view of the river stretching out in front of them, framed by the brick red of the rising canyon walls was pretty outta site as well.
"Pick a pontoon, please," said their guide. The pontoons were low-level watercraft with two huge air filled blades on either side. One small wave would toss them, but Sam assured him that on this part of the river, there were no waves.
Sam hopped in the first one they got to, and Dean followed suit. He figure that Sam would sit in the middle, which he did, so Dean parked himself right beside Sam, and stretched out his legs too. Plus, there was a small backrest and behind that two coolers. Everyone else had to sit up, while Sam and Dean could kick back and relax.
"Hope you don't mind being the drink servers," said someone from behind them.
Dean turned to see a very tanned woman wearing green shorts and t-shirt and no shoes. She had a hat and sunglasses, but he got the feeling she spent a lot of time in the sun.
"No, we don't mind," said Sam. Of course.
"I'm Kelly," she said to one and all, "and I'll be your guide for the day."
She went over the rules, their route, and what they might expect to see. Dean listened with half an ear, watched Sam be fully attentive, and wondered if he might take his shoes off, as everyone else seemed to be doing. Like they'd taken this trip a hundred times before. Kelly started the engine, and the pontoon began to move, with almost no wake, with the current of the river. Within five minutes, Sam had taken his sneakers off and was content to tap his long toes in the cool water that had already puddled at the bottom of the pontoon. His shoes, with the socks tucked inside, were damp quite soon after.
"They're wet," said Sam, looking at Dean sideways. "And cool."
Dean sighed. "Alright, alright, alright." Then he took his shoes off too. The water was cold and completely distracted him from any other thoughts.
As the pontoon glided, Kelly talked on and off about the depth and size of the canyon, how it was formed, who discovered it, what it was used for, and other stuff that Sam listened to with full on attention. Dean let his mind wander. It was a bit like school, so it was easy to shut out. Besides if there was something he needed to know, Sammy would tell him. She pointed out birds, and rock formations, talked about movies that had been made there, and what sort of pass you might need for fishing or camping. But she didn't talk all the time, and for that, Dean was grateful. Grateful to let his eye be drawn up the red sides of the canyon, to take in the blue sheen that looked like polished glass but was, according to Kelly, some sort of mold that took thousands of years to grow and was a testament to the age of the canyon. The water, as well, looked like glass from time to time, and when the breeze kicked up and ruffled it, looked as if a bird had brushed its wing across the surface.
Overhead, the sun was hard gold, cutting through the almost neon blue of the sky. The contrast of the top edge against the sky was striking, and Dean found his gaze drawn upward over and over again. The canyon walls rose higher as they floated down river, and it was almost as if the river was swallowing them into a throat, from which they could not return. Dean shook his head. Rivers of no return, whether or not they were named Styx, was not where his thoughts should be today. He would not let them. Sitting up, he gave Sam a hard smack on the thigh.
"Soda," he said.
"Got it," said Sam, reaching without thinking to snap that Dean should get his own soda. But he'd been serving cold cans of the stuff since they started, reaching behind him into the cooler when requested. He handed Dean a coke, and pulled an orange soda out for himself. They popped the lids at the same time, smiled at each other, and Dean sank his drink back with an almost obscene pleasure. It was sometimes disgusting how good a soda could be. The only way it might be better was if it had been a beer, and there'd been some hot babe to wipe his brow.
Sam, as well, seemed very content, what with all the teachery, classroom lecture stuff being thrown at him. For that reason alone, Dean told himself to keep quiet. Quiet and watchful and at peace. For Sam's sake.
The canyon, as well, helped with this. When Kelly wasn't talking, and she'd cut the engine, they floated along as if under a bell of silence. It would have been spooky if it had not also been so very pleasant. Not as pleasant as, say, getting blown by Pamela Anderson, but good, in its own way. Sun, silence, water, blue sky overhead and Sam at his side. That was enough. Each day with Sam would be enough.
He did not let himself do any math to figure out how many he had left.
By the time his stomach was screaming, the pontoon stopped for lunch. Everyone got out at the beach where they tied up, and there, waiting, was another pontoon, this one with a canopy overhead, ladened with food. Two nice ladies helped everyone make sandwiches, get chips and fruit and cookies and more soda. Dean made himself two sandwiches, one roast beef, and one turkey, with extra mayo on both and plenty of cheese. With chips piled on top, he had no room for anything else, but the woman assured him there would be plenty for seconds or thirds. Sam followed suit, both his sandwiches were ham, and they found themselves on one of the tarps in the shade of the river willows. Around them sat families with children, couples with out, all taking off hats and talking and eating. It was so normal, so very, very normal, that for a moment, Dean felt out of place.
Except for Sam.
It was hotter now, too, even in the shade, because they were off the river. The heat from the canyon walls bore down on them as if they'd been in an oven. There was almost no breeze, and ants started joining them. Dean began to sweat.
"Not a picnic without 'em," said Sam, flicking one off his toe.
"Nope," agreed Dean, thinking of the many meals they'd eaten in places far nastier and more bug infested than this. Like the one motel in Arkansas, where the gnats had been swarming even before they'd opened the loaf of bread and the can of quick heat chili. Somewhere in that kitchenette, something had turned to mold and had drawn the gnats. None of them had been able to find it, so for three days, they slept, ate, and rested with gnats around their heads.
"Remember Arkansas?" asked Sam. He turned his head towards Dean, his mouth full of ham sandwich, and Dean had to swallow and look away, pretending that something had caught his attention.
Yeah, he remembered Arkansas. For one brief second he knew he remembered every motel they'd ever stayed at. Every hunt they'd ever shared. Every meal they'd ever taken. Every moment of every day shared with Sam. Just like this one, just as brief, and just as gilded with silver, and platinum, and gold and every other precious thing on the planet.
"Hey," he said, hopping up, "I'm gonna get some cookies, you want any?"
If Sam was startled by this, he did not indicate, but as Dean looked down at the top of his brother's head, he willed Sam not to look up. Sam did not, but only answered, mouth still full, "Get me a ton of chip, chip, chipperoos, would you?"
Sam had ever been a chocolate chip cookie fiend; Dean preferred Oreos himself. Luckily, there were both, and as Dean got a new plate and heaped it full of Sam's favorite and his own, the lady behind the counter, smiled at him. He smiled back, and walked back to Sam, fixing his game face on good and tight.
"It's getting hot," said Sam, taking the plate from him so he could sit down.
"Yeah," said Dean, sitting cross-legged on the tarp. He took the plate back and stuffed two Oreos in his mouth as fast as he could. They really did need milk to dunk them into, but the soda would do just fine to wash them down. Besides, his main goal was keeping his mouth full so Sam wouldn't be able to ask him any questions. Or if he did ask, it would be forever before Dean could answer. And by that time, maybe Sam would have forgotten what he'd asked. Heck. It could happen. As it was, Sam was content to munch away on store baked chocolate chips, his eyes half closed as if they tasted like ambrosia. They were pretty good, but Dean had it on even better authority, Sam when drunk, to be exact, that Jessica had made chocolate chip cookies that melted, just fucking melted, on your tongue. Dean believed it. That girl had looked like she could cook.
Once the majority had finished lunch, some of the kids, their parents watching closely, went to the river's edge and started to stick their toes in. This led to whole feet going in, and then legs, and then the splashing began. Someone asked Kelly if it was alright to do this, or maybe even swim a little, and she nodded and waved and told them the river bottom was sandy and the current so slow where they were that it was quite safe. Cold, though, but the warning was lost on the kids who took the opportunity, before parents could say no, to dive right in. Head dunking, splashing, and shouting sounds bounced off the canyon walls, making it seem that there was another party, just as loud and just as boisterous right around the next bend. But it was only them, them in the silence, their laughter and shouts the only sound.
Sam was watching them.
"Wanna go in?" asked Dean. Which was a dumb question with an obvious answer. Sam loved to swim, it was part of the reason the college he'd picked had been near the ocean. If there was a salty breeze to be had, some cooling sea wind to be in, Sam was there. With Dean right behind him, truth be told.
Sam's answer was a silent nod, and Dean began to look around for the trashcan. Which was, of course, placed right by the pontoon that served the food. He took their trash, and hustled back to Sam, trying to ignore the families all around. People who had brought the right gear and worn the right, light cotton clothes. Jeans would be heavy when wet, but he hardly imagined that the mothers and fathers present would enjoy watching him strip to his trunks. Sam stood up as he came back, and then he shrugged, telling Dean, that yeah, Sam's thoughts were his own.
"We'll dry," said Sam. "Especially in this heat."
And so they would.
They forwent the usual rock, paper, scissors to determine who would go in first and tell the other how it was. Instead, at Sam's nod, they raced in, feet churning the sand to spray, the water coming up to their waists as cold as if it had been from the artic, and when Dean's head went under, he felt his heart want to stop. It was cold. Colder than anything, and clean, and somehow sharp, going right to his brain. Making him gasp as he surfaced, looking for Sam and finding him, watching the dark head whip back to get the hair out of Sam's eyes. It wasn't really deep, but as he floated, most of him was underwater, his t-shirt floating around his chest and back like seaweed, his jeans pulling him under with their weight.
As he looked up at the sky, the blue of it hit him, coming down like an anvil right between the eyes.
Sam floated beside him, splashing a little to keep himself steady. "Who knew?" he asked, almost to himself.
"Not me," said Dean.
"I thought it was just desert out here, you know?"
"Yeah," said Dean. "Guess not."
Nope, not desert, not by half. It was all sky and canyon and water, and, as he sunk his head below the surface of the water, it was silence. It was good for a moment, and then, as he could hear the blood pounding in his ears, it got bad. He didn't want to hear his heart going, didn't want to imagine it ending. Didn't want to think of Sam all alone. His head snapped up, and he bent his knees, and pushed himself to standing, feet grinding in the sand.
"I'm done," he said. "I'm going to go dry off."
He went to one of the rocks on the shore, and sat there with his arms curled around his knees, dripping. Water slid down his neck and his back and his ankles, and his clothes clung to him like paint. It was almost cold, but it was good to watch Sam goofing around in the water like a seal, catching a ball one of the kids had tossed, and throwing it back, overhand, to land squarely at the kid's feet. Laughing, mouth opened, the sun catching his eyes, the white of his teeth.
Dean reminded himself to attend to his game face. He figured he'd have a lot of practice in the coming year, but it was important to start right away.
With lunch finished up, and the kids, and Sam, tiring of the water, everything and everyone was loaded back on the pontoon, and they began to float again down river. The lunch pontoon was soon left far behind. The sun was hot overhead, and quite fast, everyone was as dry as if they'd never gone in the water. Sam downed another orange drink while Dean longed for a beer. The red canyon walls continued to rise, got redder, and it got hotter, even though they were on the water. Out came hats and sunscreen. One woman even had a tiny umbrella. Dean and Sam sweated in the sun.
"Dude," said Sam. "Sunburn."
"You too," said Dean.
Someone handed them a tube of sunscreen, and Dean thought about it for a moment, and then put some on. He handed the tube to Sam, and nodded at him to make him do the same. The unwritten rule about not taking handouts could be foregone in the light of the risks of a sunburn.
"Thanks, mister," Sam said, handing the sunscreen back.
"No problem," said the man. "You boys not spend a lot of time in the desert, then?"
"Is it that obvious?" asked Sam, with an open mouthed smile. Dean watched him kick into his I-am-friendly mode and leaned back to let him.
"Yeah," said the man also smiling. "A little."
"We're from," here Sam paused, as if thinking of regions and accents and where no one on the boat was likely to be from. "We're from Michigan, and, well, the sun there isn't like it is here."
"I'll say," said Kelly from above them. "Been there once, and never again. Thought I was going to shrivel and die from the lack of sunlight."
The man who'd shared his sunscreen with them responded about the Great Lakes. Sam looked at Dean and smiled, then sat back as well. The conversation was off and running without him, and his job was done.
Although the trip was not. About half an hour later, the pontoon docked on a sandy beach, and everyone got out. Then Kelly began to tell them the difference between pictographs and petroglyphs, the latter of which was etched into the canyon walls, just up the path. After a brief five-minute walk, there would be a park ranger to tell them about the history of the petroglyphs and the canyon that surrounded them.
Sam was on fire, Dean could see it in his eyes how much he wanted to go see this thing. Dean had heard about petro-whatsits, of course, but they were basically 5,000 year old graffiti and so what? Besides, his jeans were drying in hard creases along his legs and the sunburn on the back of his neck was not stopping. The air under the willows along the bank was cool, the sand under his feet damp from the water. The heat waves banking off the top of the path through the trees was another matter.
"You go, Sam," he said. "I'll wait."
Sam looked at him, hands hanging at his sides. With one corner of his eyes he was watching the contents of their pontoon trekking up the path. With the other corner, he was looking at Dean, and just about to say, okay, Dean, because what does it matter after all? I've never seen a petroglyph before, and I can certainly live the rest of my life without ever seeing one, and--it was too much.
"Okay, Sam," he said. "Let's go."
Shiny. That's what Sam's eyes were at that moment. Shiny. Happy. Shoulders settling as he turned and led the way up the path, which was steep and dusty and got hotter as they went up it.
"I can't believe I'm walking all this way in bare feet," he said to Sam's back. He reached up to keep a willow branch from whapping him in the eyes, and ducked under a spider hanging down.
"Me either," said Sam, with a contentment in his voice that told Dean that his baby brother was, in his mind, reliving history. Indians had walked where they were now walking. For thousands of years and maybe they were even stepping on the same dirt! He could almost see the text and the footnotes and the charts popping out of Sam. Well, okay. It was pretty cool. He looked down at his toes as he stepped up on a huge rock that was acting as a natural stair. He never went barefoot, yet here he was, tromping down on top of 5,000 fucking years of history. For Sam, anything.
At the top of the path up from the bank, the temperature zoomed up towards the hundred mark. It had to be. Sweat popped out along his back and his forehead, and he kept his mouth shut as he followed Sam. The now-level path meandered along the wall of the canyon as it rose to his left, rose and sand and buff colored, with streaks of hard, glassy blue where the mold was growing. Along the way they met people coming back from the petroglyphs, looking hot and serious, as if what the park ranger had told them was almost too much to bear.
Dean watched the sweat trickle out from behind Sam's ears, and kept his pace slow, letting Sam absorb all the damn history he wanted. Looking at cactus spines, and willow shrubs growing out of the sand, out of nothing, and getting a small, unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach. Heat was not his thing.
When they reached the park ranger, he was standing there, just like in the books, dressed for summer's heat, but wearing the buff and green of park rangers everywhere. He was a weedy little man, as if he followed a perfect non-fat, no fun diet, but he seemed able enough to withstand the heat, and in fact stood there with nary a sweat stain. Leading Dean to wonder where he'd come from. He'd certainly not been on any of the pontoons and there was no other way to get to this particular beach.
But he was talking now and pointing to the scratches on the wall, and Dean made himself pay attention to that, made himself leave behind the mystery of the appearing park ranger. Besides, Sam was already oogling the petroglyphs as up close as he could get. There was a little circle of small stones that showed you how close you could get, and it seemed strange to Dean that they wouldn't allow people any closer than they did, when the whole weathering thing was in play, here. Sun, rain, more sun, heat. Day in and day out, yet the petroglyphs looked like they'd been scratched in yesterday.
"5,000 years ago," the park ranger was saying, "Indians lived in these canyons."
Sam was a goner. Mouth hanging open a little, taking in every word while Dean let the yadda yadda yadda float around him. Until one snotty kid spoke up.
"Those are fake," he said.
"They are not," said Sam, breaking rule number 58: never talk to snotty kids.
"They are," insisted the kid.
Then the park ranger asked, "Why do you think so, son?"
"Because it's just a scam that the government is doing. They're faking us out over the importance of this canyon so they can make money off it."
"But these petroglyphs are 5,000 years old," said Sam. The kid was definitely peeing on Sam's parade, and Sam never liked that. Dean hid his smile. "They've done tests!"
"The tests are faked," insisted the kid.
Dean looked around for the kid's parents but no one seemed to be owning up to having sired him.
"The tests aren't faked," said the park ranger equably. "In fact, there's mold growing inside of several of the pictographs, and that takes 5,000 years to form at least. There's no way to fake the mold."
Before the kid could start in again, the park ranger nodded his head to indicate that he was finished. He turned to go, to where, Dean was not able to figure, but he and Sam let everyone from their pontoon go before them, and waited. Dean knew what was up. Sam wanted to touch one of the pictographs.
"I shouldn't," he said to Dean when they were alone on the little path, the half circle ring of stones at their bare feet. The heat was now well over a hundred, felt more like a hundred and ten, and the scratchy sounds of some weed bug, all around them by the thousands, was starting to ring in his ears. The sun blared down on them.
"Aw, c'mon, Sammy," he said. "It's not like you're going to deface the thing. Just touch it."
"But if I touch it and everyone else who saw it touched it, then it would be worn away. Then no one will get to see it."
"They've got tons of pictures of it," said Dean now, giving Sam a little shove in the petroglyph's direction. "Besides, all out in the weather like it is, in another few thousand years, they'll be worn away to nothing anyhow."
Sam hesitated, his fingers curling and uncurling into his palms.
"Go ahead," said Dean. "You know you want to. Leave your mark. Leave a thumbprint. Leave some skin oil that will give them something new to analyze."
Yeah, Sam was going to do it. Was doing it. Was standing on the far side of Dean from the path and was leaning forward.
Dean gave him another small shove. "Just put your feet inside the stones. It's not going to make any damn difference. I'll whistle if someone comes."
Sam was undone. He stepped inside the guardian ring of small stones, and crouched down. Put both his hands on the scratches in the rock that looked more like a row of walking ducks than anything else, and closed his eyes. He had the same expression on his face that he'd had when Dean had caught him feeling up Tabitha Clarke the day before school let out in Iowa Falls. Sam had been in the ninth grade, as Dean recalled, and had become fascinated by boobs. Or breasts, as he put it, enunciating the plural with as much care as he must be intending to kiss the real thing.
Sam was putting his face very close to the canyon wall now, sweat curling his hair to his face, not to kiss the petroglyphs, because he wasn't puckering up, but to absorb them. The heat of the rock, the smell of it, and all the while his hands upon it, soaking up the texture of it, and leaving behind enough oil from his skin that DNA tests could be done on it, if the FBI were quick enough.
Dean let him. Waited there while this private little quirky thing that Sam wanted to do was done. Tilted his head back to ease the heat from his skin, and looked up at the top of the canyon walls, which cut across the blue like a blade. Yeah, thousands of years from now, Sam's oil would be washed away, the pictographs would still be there, albeit a little fainter, and he, personally, would be just so much dust beneath someone's feet. And not Sam's.
The queasy feeling in his stomach came back and he wondered if he'd shoved too many Oreos into his gut far too fast. With soda, which was never a good combo. Milk was better. But there was no milk to be had, no shade, no easing of the scurry-scurry sound of desert grass rubbing against each other by the thousands, no masking of the sound of his heart pounding in his ears.
Sam was done, thankfully, standing up, rubbing his hands slowly against each other, not to rub the dust off, but more, to push the dust into his skin. His face, as he looked at Dean, was dappled with sweat, his pupils huge, his smile small, but real. Satisfied. That's what he was, and Dean figured that any heat stroke he was to suffer on account of it would be well worth it.
"Ready?" he asked.
"Did anyone see me?"
"No a soul," said Dean shaking his head. "Unless you count those little lizards I've seen running around."
"They might tell," said Sam, pretending to be worried. "They'll report back to the park ranger, sure as anything."
"I'm telling you they won't," said Dean, joining in. "They didn't look like, you know, upstanding lizards. They looked like the sort to wanna stick it to the man."
"Oh," said Sam, tipping back his head and laughing, silently.
"They had tattoos an' everything."
Now Sam laughed with sound, deep and hard, like he didn't have to force it at all. It was a good sound. One that Dean would miss when he was in hell.
Turning to go, he found himself being overwhelmed by a feeling of weight coming down on top of him. It must be the heat, it must be, for it could not be anything else. His heart, pounding now, seemed to want to leap out of him, whole and hard, and the wide whiteness of the path beneath his feet became blinding. Like he'd just been bashed in the head.
"Dean?" he heard Sam ask.
"Just a little hot," he heard himself saying, thinking that he saw one of those river willows growing in tall, spindly lines right out of the foot of the canyon walls. Danged stubborn little buggers, growing like that, pushing out from under the thousands of feet of sheer rock as if to say, can't keep me down, you fucking bastard.
Dean reached out with his hands to pull himself towards that willow, barely feeling Sam's hands on his arm, barely feeling the spiky desert grass beneath his feet as he stepped off of the path. He had to get out of the sun, he had to, or he would implode.
"Dean, what's the matter with you?"
He could barely hear that, but he could feel the pebbly-smooth texture of the canyon wall beneath his two hands. Two hands against it, like he was doing pushups, and then he unlocked his elbows and let himself down against the canyon wall, pressing himself against it with his full body. With his face, smack against the stone, just as Sam's had almost been only moments before. He was in the shade now, but even so, it was still too hot. Hot like hell. Like the air itself, so still and dry, like an oven, an oven stoked by dark little imps who pushed human flesh towards the flames with their goddamned cartoon pitchforks.
"Dean," said Sam, now, loud in his ear, both hands on him, turning him around so that Dean's back was flat against the wall.
Dean squinted against the glare of the day, poking its way through the slender and mostly leafless branches. Squinted at Sam, at the expression on his brother's face that had shifted from delight to worry in about three seconds tops. If he lived another day, let alone another year, he did not want to see that expression on Sam's face. Ever.
"M'okay," he said, feeling like a thousand rivers couldn't quench the dryness in his throat. "M'just hot, Sam. Just hot."
"Yeah, it's hot," said Sam, not sounding like he was convinced.
Dean pressed his palms flat against the rock, felt the heat soak up into him as if he were pressing them into a frying pan. "Just hot, is all. Damn bus ride," he added, thinking it would distract Sam.
"We'll get you out of here," said Sam. "No more bus, I promise." He grabbed hold of Dean's elbow, his long fingers almost cool against the curve of Dean's skin, but it was not enough.
"Dean," said Sam again, his voice rising. "We need to get you down to the river so you can cool off."
Dean opened his eyes as wide as he could and looked up. Into Sam's face, into those dark eyes, sparking with concern, at the mouth, drawn down into a frown. At the sweat on Sam's skin, at the flush of his cheeks. Sam was hot too, but it was not that.
"It's too deep," said Dean, finally, the words not making sense, but all that his brain could wrap itself around. "It's too old, and it's too deep."
"What?" asked Sam, his voice rising to a pitch. "What are you talking about?"
"The canyon," he said in response. "The canyon. Too old. Too deep. Wanna go home." His voice cracked on this last, his mouth flexed over the words, quivering like he was five and about to cry because he didn't want to die.
"Shit," said Sam. "For fuck's sake, Dean." He pulled Dean to him, as if to place him back on the path and hurry him down to where the river flowed cool and slow, into the shade of the scrub willow. Into the land of where there were people and straight out of the hellish heat of a spot so old it had brought Sam to the point of rapture. But first, his hands on Dean, still and calm, he pulled Dean to him and pressed his forehead to Dean's forehead and looked him straight in the eye. "You'll go home," he said, his voice telling Dean that he somehow knew what Dean meant. "You'll go home, and I'll take you there. I promise. No matter what."
Of course, home was not a place, it was an idea. An idea of being, of him and Sam, on the road or off it, the Impala nearby or around them, the country ahead wide and inviting, and all roads led to small diners with terrific coffee and never-ending slices of pie. Just an idea, but one he was always driving towards. Someplace safe. Just for one damn day.
Dean made himself take a breath and nodded, his forehead bumping Sam's. Looking into those dark eyes, so close he could see the flick of sweat beneath each eyelash, see the flecks of mica in the green of Sam's eyes. Sam was almost shaking against him, and that was not how this day was supposed to go. Lord alone knows how much the excursion had cost Sam, but Dean could bet it hadn't been cheap. Because who knows how much it cost to shelter and feed a park ranger so that he could be available for ten minute lectures on pictographs day in and day out? He heard himself laugh, and then he placed his hands on Sam's hands, Sam's cool skin beneath his fingers.
"Get off me, I'm fine," he said, not pushing very hard. "I'm fine."
Sam was still for a minute, not letting him go, not allowing himself to be pushed off.
"Dean," he said, his voice almost a question. Those eyelashes, oh so close, blinked.
"Sam," said Dean, putting some weight behind it. In a second, it would become rather joke-worthy, him and Sam standing toe-to-toe, forehead-to-forehead, his hands curling around Sam's forearms, sweat forming between them. But for a moment, it was what was needed. His skin to Sam's, heat pooling up as fast as if they were in a sauna, which, they were, actually. Connecting them as though they might be connected this way forever. "I think, that is, that you--" Dean stopped. Then he nodded, feeling Sam's hair against his cheek. "I'm good. Okay? I'm good. Just had a moment there, is all."
"Home," said Sam. Meaning it. "I'm taking you home."
"Yeah," said Dean, leaning back, taking his body away from Sam's, giving that last final push. "Well, good luck with that." It was dismissal and thank you all at once, because Sam knew, knew how Dean felt about him mucking about with Dean's deal. Any welching and Sam would drop dead, so no fucking around. End of story. But the sentiment was nice. Sam. And him. And home. Home was wherever Sam was now, and the year he had to live it in. Which should not be spent sweating his balls out against a dry, red rock that would still be there years after he was gone to dust.
He gave one last push, and Sam let himself be pushed, pulling on Dean as he stepped out of the shade and back onto the path, where the whiteness of the heat sliced through skin and bone all at once and made Dean want to stagger back into the shade. Instead, he followed Sam and staggered down the path, his feet raw from the stones and the dust, and ever so grateful to plant themselves into the shady, damp sand at the river's edge.
"About to go," said Kelly. "Was going to send a search party for you boys. Enjoy the petroglyphs, then?"
"Yes, ma'am," they said at the same time. And climbed back aboard the pontoon.
The rest of the float down the river was almost the same as the first part had been, except for the fact that the sun was now almost overhead, there was almost no shade except for the times when Kelly steered the pontoon right into the walls of the canyon. Which loomed up hard and red and made Dean's mouth turn dry. He'd had enough, he really had. The canyon was redder than it had been that morning, the sky was bluer than it should be, and the heat was sucking every last bit of energy he had out of him.
Someone handed him a soda. It was Sam.
"Orange, Sam?" he asked.
"Drink it. Coke's all gone."
Someone else handed them a wet towel, and it was the nicest thing that anyone had ever done for him. He swiped his neck with it, his arms, his face, and then handed it back.
"Can you do that again for my brother?" he asked.
The man nodded, and then handed the towel to his kid, who delighted in scaring the grownups by leaning out way to far so he could soak the towel again. There was no danger, the pontoon was moving almost as slow as the river, so even if he fell overboard, it would be nothing to stop and pick him up. Still, the kid seemed to be enjoying his role as wetter of the towel and saving all these dumb grownups from overheating.
Dean watched while Sam ran the wet towel over his skin, and it seemed that neither of them would ever be able to cool down again. Being soaked to the skin helped only for as long as it took the dry, desert air to wick any moisture from their bodies. Which was, say, about five minutes.
Dean was never so glad to see Cozy's bus at the docks ahead of them.
The pontoon settled against the docks, and Kelly helped them all out of her boat, thanking each and every one of them personally. Dean could see some people slipping her tip money, and he suddenly felt like a stranger in a strange land.
"Sam?" he asked, nudging his brother.
"Got it," said Sam, peeling a fiver out of his pocket and slipping it into Kelly's hand after he shook it. "From me and my brother," he said.
Dean shook her hand too, nodding, trying to look as if the last six hours of his life had been a blissful experience.
"You're more than welcome," Kelly said. "Always a pleasure to introduce people to the wonders of the canyon." It might have been by rote that she said this, but, by golly, she really did sound as if she meant it.
As did Cozy, who welcomed them aboard an over-cooled bus with a rowdy howdy and a hard smile on her face. As if she knew she scared Dean Winchester with her driving and was looking forward to about three solid hours of torturing him.
"Just watch the movie," said Sam as they settled in and Cozy turned on a movie about the mules of the Grand Canyon narrated by Wilfred Brimley for them to watch while she drove. "Just watch it and doze off, like you were in a motel."
Dean did this as he did his best to ignore Cozy's driving. She really did catch every bump on the road, making the bus sway as she passed other drivers that were too slow, and driving so fast, it was making his head swim.
"Relax, dude," said Sam. "Sleep or something."
Sam was tired too, Dean could tell. All that sun. He nodded once or twice, let his brain become stoned on Wilfred Brimley's voice, and sunk back into the cushions. Only to wake up, his head on Sam's shoulder, as his brother nudged him awake. The sun slanted hard through the trees and across the parking lot.
"Safe and sound," said Sam, almost whispering. They weren't off the bus yet. Cozy might hear them and take it in her blackbelt-of-a-busdriver brain and just keep on going. With them aboard.
They slipped down the stairs and past the crowd of happy customers who were tipping and friendly and exchanging all kinds of personal information.
"No more busses, Sam, promise me that."
"Oh, Christ, you know it," said Sam, leading the way into the lobby. "She took those corners so fast, I thought I was going to loose my stomach."
Dean smiled, following Sam up the single flight of stairs. Even if it wasn't true, it was nice of Sam to say it like he meant it.
The hotel room was cool and dark as they entered it, almost too still after all the movement of the day. Rather like they'd been driving for hours, only they had not gone anywhere. Just circled up to the Glen Canyon dam and back again, in the stifling heat with only sunburns to show for it. Little sunburns, thanks to the kindness of strangers. Well tired, Dean looked at the bed and flexed his shoulders. He imagined that they would get a meal at the little diner that shared a wall with the hotel, and after that, they would catch some TV until their eyes closed of their own accord, and the morning would greet them with plans for the road and the hunting of a chubacapra somewhere down south. That felt right, anyway, felt solid and doable, and everything else could just go to hell.
"Something to eat?" he asked, turning to Sam, who was turning on the bathroom light.
"Yeah," said Sam. "Those sandwiches are only a memory now."
They washed up, and changed clothes, and Dean had never been so grateful for hot water and soap. Or a t-shirt not stiff with sweat and sand. Or socks that weren't damp. Sam looked grateful too as they made their way to the diner, got seated, and ordered their food. Chili size for him, extra onions, and a Ruben for Sam. Fries and soda all around. Dean chomped his way through the sandwich, sighing every other bite, thinking of the hot sun and the canyon wall slicing through the sky. The water, now that he was off it, looked like cool glass in his mind, perfectly still, reflecting only the sky, while the river willows bobbed over dark places where the water ran deep beneath the stone.
"Good trip," he said, around a swallow of coke.
"Yeah," said Sam, his voice somewhat flat.
Dean paused, putting the coke down and letting his gaze flick upwards. Sam's face had that look that it had when he was working on a still-forming thought in his head. Or knowing Sam, a series of thoughts, some of which he would share and others he would not. Dean had long ago learned not to ask for the things Sam would prefer never see the light of day or his brother's scrutiny, but it had never stopped him from wondering about them.
"I'm sorry, Dean," said Sam, his mouth working over the words. "It wasn't--"
He stopped and Dean's brain wanted to fill in the blanks. It wasn't supposed to go like that. Or, it wasn't my plan that you should have a meltdown in the middle of nowhere. Or, it wasn't fun for you and that's my fault.
"It wasn't supposed to be a disaster," said Sam. Finally. His shoulders almost shrugged as he got this out.
"Wasn't a disaster, Sam," said Dean. But the expression on Sam's face, mulish at best told him that yes it was, and Dean was just wrong if he thought otherwise.
"It wasn't," said Dean, placing his sandwich back on his plate for emphasis. "Yeah, it was a little hot and Cozy was the yellow eyed demon incarnate, but I had a good time. Did you have a good time?" He arched his brows at his brother and made Sam look at him. "Did you?"
"I did, but Dean--"
"But what? We had a good time. We did."
"But the heat, the fact that it was so old, that it was too old, that it was--"
"Yeah, well," said Dean. He took a bite of his sandwich, too big a bite, so his mouth would be full of food as he talked and piss Sam off and distract him from his worry. "The whole place took millions of years to carve itself out of the earth, and anyone comin' in here and thinkin' otherwise is a damn fool."
Obligingly, Sam grimaced at his bad table manners, and looked away, almost pouting. Almost. The curve of his mouth was still a little too grim for a mere fit of pique over how Dean chewed with his mouth full and talked at the same time, for God's sakes.
"I saw the Grand Canyon, Sam," said Dean, trying to swallow, and choking a bit. He took a large swig of coke and swallowed most of his mouthful unchewed. But better some indigestion later than one more second of Sam berating himself for not pulling off the perfect day. "I saw the freaking Grand Fucking Canyon. Something I've always wanted to see. Want me to get all pansy-assed and girly on you in gratitude to tell you how much that means to me? Well here you go."
Sam was looking at him now, eyes very wide, his mouth hanging open just a little bit as if he was about to experience something amazing.
"I stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon and looked at something so awesome, that it was a freaking miracle to ever see it at all. Hell, I went inside of it. Swam in the river and cooled off. With you. With my brother Sam. And if I die tomorrow, hell, if I died right now--"
He was about to continue but his throat closed up and his eyes got hot, and God damn it, his hands started to shake. He put his hands against his thighs and watched Sam watching him. Watched Sam grow very still. Listening still.
"If I died right now, right fucking now, or a thousand years from now, you listenin' to me Sammy?"
"When I die," said Dean, wanting to clarify, "this will be the day I think about."
Then he looked away. At the swinging door that led to the kitchen, at the three waitresses grouped around the coffee pot like it was an alter, gabbing away, at the long runner of carpet that was flecked with red speckles cause some dumbass designer thought it would look good like that. And listened to Sam swallow. Clear his throat and swallow again.
"Well," said Sam, voice thick like his throat had closed up as hard as Dean's. "Nobody's dying. Not on my watch."
That was another joke. An old, old joke, something they'd gotten from some movie, where sacrifice and subversion had moved hand in hand.
"Yeah," Dean made himself say. "Not on mine either." Then he made himself reach for his coke and took a long, hard suck on the straw, wanting to ease the fist in his throat. Wanting to give Sam time to do the same.
"Well, then," said Sam, now, surprising Dean into looking up. Sam's eyes were glassy, like he was holding something back. Alas, the moment that he, Dean, was trying so very hard to move past, was now being extended by Sam. "We need something else, then."
"What?" asked Dean. He didn't mean, what do we need. He meant, what are you talking about, why do we need anything?.
"It needs something else, some ceremony, something to mark the day."
"Aw, man, dude. Can't we just go back to the room, watch some TV, and then fall asleep?"
"No." Sam's mouth got firm. "Can you just go with me here? We need this." He looked at Dean, his hair falling into his eyes, chin jutting out as if he didn't really want to say what he was about to say. "We need to mark a way that let's us both know that we deserve to be alive. That while we are here at the cost of--" Then he stopped, and pressed his hands against his eyes, leaning his elbows on the table. His voice came out muffled. "Can we just go and do this thing, please?"
Dean nodded though he knew Sam couldn't see him. He waved the waitress over without a word, and handed her the credit card before he'd even looked at the bill. She could have charged him for market price lobster and it wouldn't have mattered.
"We're outta here," he said, signing the slip. Standing. Knocking on the table for Sam to uncover his eyes and get up. Sam followed him back to the room, without a sound.
"You okay?" Dean asked, unlocking the door.
"Yes," said Sam, sounding like he was. "Where are the keys to the car?
Before Dean could tell him they were on the nightstand, Sam grabbed them up. "I'm driving," he said. "C'mon."
Madness had many forms, but Dean figured that Sam wasn't drunk or stoned, so they were both pretty safe. Plus, he wasn't Cozy, and the Impala wasn't a bus. If Sam wanted to drive around on dark roads with the desert air whispering through open windows, Dean was inclined to let him. And his baby loved nighttime drives to nowhere. Loved them.
They walked down to the lobby and out to the parking lot, getting into the Impala without a word. Dean rolled his window down while Sam, with much care, given his passenger, gunned the engine to life. He seemed to check his bearings, adjusted the side and rearview mirrors, and then, by the glow of the dashboard, guided the Impala onto the main road. Only to pull into the liquor store across the street.
He parked the car and turned off the engine.
"Stay here," he said.
So Dean did, hoping that Sam remembered that Dean did not like lite beer. He did not want to dwell on what Sam had revealed about the mysterious workings of his brain. That guilt that he, Dean, felt because Dad had traded his life for his son's, could now be added to by the guilt that Sam felt because Dean had traded his life for his brother's. He'd not thought that Sam would feel that way, not at all. Bothered, yes, and okay, guilty, because Sam was like that. But worked up to the point of breaking down in a restaurant? Something had fisted around his heart at that moment, and was even now tightening.
But Sam was coming back, brown bag in hand that did not look like a six-pack of any kind. It looked more like a wine bottle.
"What lame ass thing did you just buy?" he demanded as Sam got into the driver's seat. Sam handed everything to him and as he pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road, Dean opened the bag and looked inside. One wine bottle and a corkscrew.
"Hell," Dean said, "we coulda just broken this thing open on some stones. Fuckin' corkscrews always cost more than the wine."
"Not wine," said Sam, driving them back towards the gates to the park.
"Wine bottle," said Dean. "Wine bottle, corkscrew, wine. What else could it be."
"Mead," said Sam. "Honey mead."
"Honey what?" asked Dean.
"Mead, darling," said Sam, and though it was dark, he could see Sam arching his brows, trying to look like he was simpering. And succeeding.
"What is mead, oh my brother?" asked Dean, laughing as he pulled the bottle out.
"Fermented honey," said Sam. "Greeks and Romans used to drink it."
"Lame," said Dean. Looking at the bottle in the mostly dark of the passenger side wasn't telling him anything, so he put the bottle back in the bag. "This stuff couldn't get a bee drunk."
"It will kick your ass," said Sam, "so watch out."
"Ass kicking honey," said Dean. "Now I've seen everything."
"Wait'll you taste it," said Sam. He was slowing now, just as they reached the gates, and pulling off to the left, onto a narrow dirt road that wound its way beyond the bobbing headlights and into the trees.
"Where are we going? Not into the park." For some reason, that was where he thought they were headed.
"No open alcohol allowed inside the park."
"Oh." This made sense, but didn't tell him much more. "This ceremony. Does it involve wearing sheets and olive wreathes?"
"No," said Sam. He drove slowly over the bumps and rocks, and it occurred to Dean that the road wasn't meant for public travel. Not given that every other road in the park was as well groomed as if it had its very own butler to look after it. "No new clothes required. Just. Something."
"Something you shared with Jess?" asked Dean before he could stop himself.
There was a slow pause as Sam pulled up under the trees and parked the car. He shut off the lights and then the engine, and in the silence that grew as the engine cooled, Dean could hear Sam nod.
"Yeah." His voice was soft around the memory. "She showed me the honey mead. We drank it when we wanted to mark the occasion."
Dean allowed this answer to shut him the hell up.
"She was a sucker for beautiful sunsets," said Sam. "And over the ocean, well, during the fall, when the storms came, we drank mead a lot." Behind the words was a sense of something golden, the memory of Jessica's hair maybe, or the push of her lips as she swallowed the mead and looked into the sky and smiled because it was beautiful.
Dean let the silence fall a moment more, and then said, "Alright. Let's drink some mead."
He got out of the car, and shut the door almost gently, not wanting it to be too loud and attract anyone. Sam did the same and began to walk down the dirt road, reaching out, at one point, to take the bag from Dean. With no flashlight between them, Dean was surprised that he was almost able to see after a minute or two, and then realized that there was a half moon peeking over the trees and about a zillion stars coming straight down at them.
"Christ," said Dean. "Almost like daylight out here."
"Yeah," said Sam.
They walked in silence, in the dark, the slow, warm wind carrying the scent of pine and dust, the heat of the day sinking away to be replaced by a coolness that felt good against his skin. The sounds coming from the darkness between the trees was almost mild, as if in a forest so well-tended, so approved of by Disney himself, there were no lions, or tigers, or bears. Well, probably not. Dean did remember a placard talking about elk wandering around, so maybe there were wolves or something who hunted the elk. He wanted to ask, but didn't. For just one freaking night they weren't going to worry about chasing anything or anything chasing them. One freaking night.
Then, as the road began to rise, Sam cut off through the trees, towards what looked like white lumps that turned out to be rocks. As if part of the Grand Canyon stone had decided to push itself to the surface right here for no reason. The stones were big enough to lie on, and this Sam did, right then and there. Stretching out for all the world looking like he could sleep there. That Dean could not exactly see all of Sam's features did not matter. He knew that sigh, knew how the air felt around those shoulders as they relaxed. He heard the clunk as Sam set the wine bottle down beside him on the rock.
"Here we are," said Sam.
"How did you find this place?" asked Dean, lowering himself to the stone and stretching out too. The stone was flat and warm under his back, and the air above him was as soft as sugar.
"Didn't," said Sam. "Saw the road on the map, thought it might be like this."
Trust Sam. Making something out of nothing, which sometimes turned out good, sometimes bad. This time it was good.
They lay there for a while, letting the brightness grow out of the dark, settled their hands behind their heads, resettled their backs against the stone. Watched the stars glow and flicker, listened to the wind slough between the pines. Dean felt his eyes closing and thought if this was Sam's ceremony, it was just fine. They'd drink the mead, look at the stars, drink more mead, and then go home. Sleep. Eat. Drive. Hunt. All would be well.
"We gonna drink?" asked Dean, when the thought of the mead began to pull at him harder than not saying anything did.
"Yep," said Sam, sitting up. Dean heard him rustling with the bag and turned his head to watch, not really surprised by how well he could see. Night vision was something he used all the time, and angel vision too, looking just past Sam into the darkness to allow him to see his brother's face more clearly. "Sit up, Dean, and we'll drink."
Sam opened the mead and made Dean take the first taste. Dean sat up, and crossed his legs, reaching for the mead. He took a swallow, and as the sweetness turned into fire, he nodded and handed the bottle back.
"I see many drunk bees in my future," he said.
"Thought you'd like it," said Sam, smiling around the opening as he put the bottle against his lips to drink, smiling as he swallowed. It made Dean want to smile back. So he did. In the dark. When Sam wasn't looking.
They traded the bottle back and forth, till it was half gone and the half moon looked like a slice of white cake in the sky. Shiny and glowy as if it too had had its share of mead and then some.
"Oh, moon," said Sam, half laughing to himself. He pushed his hair from his eyes.
"What?" asked Dean, wanting to be in on the joke.
"Some poem," said Sam, shaking his head. "I can't remember the rest of it. It's like a drunk's sonnet to the moon. Drunks say it. Have been for years. It's an old poem now, so all you have to do is say, "Oh, moon," like that, and all the drunks around you will know what you are talking about."
Sam sounded half drunk himself, so Dean simply took the bottle and held it up to the sky as if to make a grand toast, and said, "Oh, moon," in the same tones as Sam and then took another swig.
"Christ, Dean," said Sam, and not like it was a good thing, or a bad thing, but there was definitely an edge to Sam's voice, and Dean could tell he was just about close to waterworks time. Old waterworks Sammy. Yeah.
"Is it ceremony time, yet?" he asked, to stave this off. If Sammy started in, he was liable to join, at this point, and bawling his eyes out in a pine-scented, Disneyfied forest was not the way he wanted to be remembered.
"Just about," said Sam. "We need to get a little more drunker than this."
"Drunker?" asked Dean. Drunk as he was, that was not good English.
"More drunk," Sam amended. "Much more drunk."
The mead was sending them well on their way, if the numbness of Dean's teeth was anything to go by. His fingers were tingling too, and the coolness of the night air was easily warmed away by the blood pumping beneath the surface of his skin. He was warm inside and out, and moving towards bonelessness like he was floating in water. Like he was floating on the water, on a blue pontoon, across glassy-still water, with a fine, golden sun arcing overhead in a blue sky, just the color of his mother's eyes.
Something warm slid down his cheek and he scrubbed it away with the heel of his thumb.
"You okay, there?" asked Sam.
"Give me the bottle," said Dean, taking it from his brother and holding it against his thigh. Then he lifted the bottle and said, looking up at the bright, almost silvery half-circle now well above the trees, "Oh, moon." But his voice came out furry and soft like he'd just swallowed a dandelion blossom or something. "Oh, moon," he said again, and took a huge swallow of mead, wanting to drown it out, the ugly gurgle coming up from him as he thought about how hell could so easily drown out something so delicate and bright as the moon now spinning double in his eyes. Or this hand that held a bottle and now handed it back to his brother. Or how over the roar of the hell's fire, he would never, ever be able to hear Sam say anything at all, let alone some dumb toast thought up by a bunch of drunks.
Sam took a swallow, and then handed it back to Dean.
"No, you finish," said Dean.
"One more swallow," said Sam. "One more for you, one more for me, an' then we'll be drunk enough."
"Who's gonna drive?" asked Dean.
"I will," said Sam. "I'll drive and you can walk ahead to make sure I won't hit anything."
Dean nodded, and then did as he was told. By the weight of the bottle, the heft of liquid as it sloshed around, he figured they had drunk all but a third of the mead. If one bottle did this, he could imagine what two would do and resolved not to forget this particular fine, panty loosening beverage the next time he encountered a young miss more resolved to keep her panties on than not.
"To the moon," he said, and tipped the bottle to his lips and pulled back as much mead as he could in one mouthful. It was a big mouthful, hot and sweet at the same time, soft and round inside his mouth, and yet sharp as it slid down his throat. Two huge gulps it took, and he had to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand as he drooled some of it away.
"Here ya go," he said, the bottle clunking on the rocks as Sam grabbed for it and missed. "Drunk my share, an' the rest is yours."
He listened while Sam swallowed, his eyes open wide as the moon danced and bobbed and weaved over the tops of the trees and the stars seemed to sprinkle bits of themselves down along the branches. Starry, starry night it was, everything glittering and somehow bright in the dark, the stone sand white beneath them, the dark of the forest looking, really, like strips of velvet and silk. And beside him Sam, hair falling in his eyes, the mouth a little slack, the bottle tipped back, glass glittering, the label soft, the hand wrapped around it unfocused. Then Sam put the bottle down, a clicking sound on the stone, seemed to sweep his hand around for the corkscrew, which Dean sensed he put in his pocket.
"Moon," said Sam and it seemed for a second that that's all that Sam could manage to say, that that was the ceremony, and now that it was done, they could go home.
But no. Sam cleared his throat.
"Can say it now," he said. Beginning. "We both owe our lives to someone else's sacrifice."
Dean's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. Sam was coming out of the starting gate awfully fast, and sounding like he knew exactly where he was going.
"Did you rig this, Sam? Get me so drunk so you could say this?"
"Yes," said Sam, "so shut up, Dean. So shut up, sit there, be drunk, and listen for five damn minutes."
Something in his chest blazed at this, at being so easy to move into position, but he hadn't counted on the wine. A six-pack, sure, he could handle that. But mead? He'd been out of his depth from the first sip. He could barely feel his fingers, his lips were numb, and Sam had the keys. He was trapped.
"Dad for you, you for me, and hell, if we had a little brother, I'd do the same for him." There was a pause. "Would do the same for you if it came to it."
Sam paused, as if waiting for Dean's protestations that he shouldn't even fucking consider it, but Dean felt some hardness slip out of his bones, and he lay back against the stone, almost blinded by the moon.
"You said it time and again, Dean. You railed against being saved by the faith healer, once you knew the cost, and you've railed against Dad going down into hell, because you somehow think you're not worth saving. You talk about yourself as if you were some kind of monster, who deserves to be taken down by an angry mob carrying pitchforks, and certainly not someone who deserves to be walking around living and breathing."
Dean put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. He told himself that now that Sam's mouth was well and truly going, he could let the yadda, yadda, yadda swirl about him untended to, just like with the park ranger. But part of his brain, the part that loved Sam more than sense, kept him attentive to every word, which he felt soaking into his brain like Sam was pouring water all over his head.
"But as you may not know," continued Sam, "since I'm in the same position, I have, unbeknownst to anyone around me, which is total bullshit, have railed against you going to hell for my benefit. I know have the unwanted privilege of knowing exactly how you feel. And it's no fun to be this fucking pissed off at someone for loving you that much."
There was a choking sound in Sam's voice, and Dean wanted to sit up, but found he couldn't. The mead was going to wear off at some point and he would be able to do it then, but for now all he could manage was Sam's name. "Sam," he said.
"I am now in the totally unfun position of feeling like the monster who doesn't deserve to be walking around living and breathing."
Now Sam sounded like he wanted nothing more than to put his head in his hands and bawl like he was a seven-year old kid.
"SamSamSam," Dean found himself saying. Wanting to sit up, but his arms had gone completely numb. "Sammy."
"So now," said Sam, clearing his throat, "now that I have seen this thing from both sides, I have decided that you are wrong. Wrong, wrong wrong."
"'ong?" asked Dean. How Sam's mind was managing to work when Dean's mouth barely could was beyond him.
"You are wrong in thinking that you don't deserve to be walking around living and breathing. You love me enough to do this stupid dumbass thing for me, so in your eyes, I must be worthy of living and breathing. And if I am, then you are. So you can just stop the fucking self-pity bullshit that you don't deserve to live and help me fucking make sure that you make it past a year."
"'zat it?" asked Dean.
"No," said Sam, almost screaming through his teeth. Teeth that sounded like they'd gotten very, very numb. "You gotta hear me on this. Let me know that you hear me, that you know you're not a monster. That you deserve to live, to freaking get drunk with the bees for every single freakin' sunset, an' that you'll remember today for a long, long time."
Sam lay back as he said this, his head hitting hardness with a clonk, which he no doubt did not feel, but would in the morning, and as his hands flopped out beside him, Dean heard him sigh. "Fairy lights, Dean. I need to see 'em."
"Fairy lights?" asked Dean. "Too pink and my 'ittle pony for me, Sam." He was struggling to move his hands from behind his head, and as the back of his hand began to sting, he thought they might be coming back to life.
"Not all my little ponies are pink," said Sam, and as Dean pushed himself up on one elbow, he could see that Sam's eyes were closed and that he was frowning. "I had one that was a zebra."
"Yes, a zebra. I called him Zug-Zug."
Where this was coming from, Dean had no idea, and no memory of a black and white striped my little pony named Zug-Zug.
"Lost it when we left Milwaukee, that one time. I was seven, I think."
Milwaukee had smelled like beer, as he recalled, and if Sam had been seven, he'd been eleven, maybe going on twelve, and maybe going through an ignore-little-brother-like-he's-invisible phase. Black-haired Sammy in the back seat of the Impala, kicking his feet and singsonging constantly. Probably to Zug-Zug, now dearly departed, and, no doubt, sadly missed. For years.
"Sorry about Zug-Zug," he said, now upright, needing both of his hands and the bulk of his shoulders to hold him steady. His hands were tingling.
"'sokay," said Sam, now almost smiling. "Damn things a collector's item now."
"Huh," said Dean as his body teetered like it wanted to fall back down. He didn't let it.
"Dean lights, then," said Sam, like a final tally had been reached. "Need to see 'em, no matter what they're called."
Dean sat forward and crossed his legs, or tried to. It came out rather like one leg bent sideways and the other leg stretched out as if it had lost all connection with its brain. But he could lean forward now and take his weight off of his hands, and if he tumbled, it would be more into his own lap rather than his head against stone. His undrunk brain, the part that Sam had been pouring water over, was clear about the memory of their conversation about the semi truck in front of them on the road over Wolf Creek Pass. That the tap tap tap of break lights was, to Sam, something more than just a thank you for sharing the road. It was, as he recalled, a metaphor for the goodness hiding inside something ugly. Something monstrous, but still capable of something sweet. That much he was clear on, that Sam wanted Dean to prove he knew he wasn't a monster. How Sam expected him to prove it was another matter.
With his hands in his lap, still numb but tingling, he let his head sink forward. Watched as his own shadow moved across his chest, and thought about the moon cutting through the sky and all the drunks who had ever saluted it. About Sam and his monster trucks. About mirror-still water that slid beneath his hands as he reached out to touch it. About not-nearly-cool enough shady glades, and a brother pressing close, their foreheads touching till sweat slicked between them. The promise of rescue, not lightly made, of a home, not just beyond the horizon, where they would never reach it, but between them. Always between them, and if they were together, always enough. More than enough.
Hell would be taking more than his soul when it took it. It would be taking Sam's. He had not thought of that.
He felt bruised as his body came to life, as if rolling around on the rocks were more than it wanted to put up with and was letting him know. His teeth were still numb, but his lips and his cheek were furious and letting him know it, just as his hands were. Zinging with it, wanting more mead to be numbed with, and he really didn't want to tell his body that there was no more mead to be had. That Sam had drunk it all.
He was all out.
"This is all I got," he said to Sam, whose face was still, dark hair spilling across the stone, eyes closed. Still. Dean leaned over and placed his hands on either side of Sam's head. Like he was going to do a push up, only he hadn't started yet. Dean pushed down instead, kissing his brother with lips that wanted to know what the hell just as they tingled and zinged and felt every brush, every feathery curve of Sam's mouth. Then he pulled back, did the push up and opened his eyes.
"That's all I had," he said, still feeling the brush of Sam's mouth. "It's the only part of that can feel anything at the moment."
He felt Sam sigh, a whole body sigh, and then, instead of pushing him away and saying, dude, gross, Sam reached up and wrapped his arms around Dean and pulled him down. Down against a long body, shielding him from the stone beneath with ribs and arms and shoulders and feet and everything that Sam was. Dean could almost hear the metaphor forming in his own brain, shocking him almost as much as Sam's arms, holding him close. Sam's face against his, somehow hot against the cool of his dark hair, and shaking. Sam was shaking, like he was crying or trying not to, and Dean tried to reach up his hands to push back, to try and push himself up so he could make sure which it was and then, take care of it, but his hands were now not working.
Sam should not be on the verge like this, they were both too drunk, too drunk too soon, and still so raw from the fury of hell opening up, and demons getting their jollies off tossing them against headstones, and of hearts still too broken to be setting themselves loose like this. On mead, for Christ's sake.
"Sammy," he managed. "Sam."
"I'm not going to loose you," said Sam right in his ear, his chest heaving up with a snap. He sounded like he was talking through gritted teeth. "Not now. Not ever. Not. Going. To."
Dean managed to ease his head so it was resting in the curve of Sam's shoulder, settling in the curve of Sam's arms. He imagined that his weight would soon become quite heavy as parts of Sam woke up from the mead, but for the moment, he stayed where he was. Reached up a loose hand to pet Sam's jaw, he felt the tenseness there. And found that his brother wasn't crying, more, he was furious. And determined. Dean did not envy the demon who would finally come to take him away, not when they would have Sam to contend with.
But he could hear and feel Sam's heartbeat all around, and for now, for now, he was content with this. Even through Sam's rage, the heartbeat was steady and strong, the skin on his neck warm against Dean's forehead.
"Dean's lights, man. You've seen 'em." He tapped Sam's face very, very softly. "An' ya can't tell anyone, ever. Cause I'll deny it, an' who they gonna believe, you or me?"
"Me," said Sam, with no pride in his voice. "They always believe me over you."
"True," said Dean, smiling as he tipped his head down. "But you still can't tell, 'kay? It would make me look, uh, soft."
"'kay," said Sam, tightening his arms around Dean. Within half an hour, they might be sober enough to drive, as the power of mead certainly seemed to fade as fast as it had grown. They were still drunk, sloppy drunk, in each other's arms in Walt's forest, and he'd just kissed his brother. On the mouth, for Pete's sake. The same brother who was now, somewhat softly, kissing the top of his head, and sighing.
He had lights somewhere inside of him, and he deserved to live. At least Sam thought so, and if Sam thought it, it must be so, even if he still mourned a toy he had when he was seven, even if he could recite poetry like a girl, and thought that Jell-O cheesecake out of a box was actually good. Sam wanted him around forever, and Dean, who could never, he knew, deny Sam the slightest thing, would do his best to see that Sam got what he wanted. But only if it didn't put Sam at risk in the bargain. If only, if only.
His feet were starting to feel cold, and the soreness from walking across one stone too many were making themselves know.
"Hey, Sammy," he said, shifting his weight so it moved off of Sam and onto what was now incredibly chilly stone. "Time to go."
Sam grunted, the way he did when Dean would wake him up too soon.
"Time," he said again. "Think bed. Think sheets. Think flat and soft."
"'kay," said Sam again, moving beneath Dean like a mountain coming to life. His brother seemed even taller all stretched out like this, and as Dean sat up, and looked down, he thought it again. Taller all stretched out.
Dean made himself get up and then reached down his hand to help his brother. Who took it, and leaned into the pull and got upright, somehow, and then handed the keys to Dean. The dark was cold around them.
"I'll walk," Sam said. "In front of the headlights."
"At least until we get out of the woods. No streetlights. I'd hate to have the Impala run into a tree."
"Huh," said Dean. This made sense. He grabbed the now wrinkled bag with the empty bottle inside of it, and grabbed Sam by the arm and strode towards the dirt road where the car waited for them.
How they made it back to the motel, he couldn't rightly tell, only that he had one single clear memory of Sam in the woods, the shine of the headlights cutting his long shape into darkness, streaking shadows that inked out behind him as he walked. Guiding them all through the trees. The Impala made it in one piece, they managed to stumble up the stairs without breaking anything, or waking anyone up, and as the cool air of the room hit Dean's skin, he managed to groan and shuck off his shoes all in the same moment.
"Bed," he said, forgetting about teeth brushing or face washing or checking the window or the door. Determined to remember this looseness, to be used for loosening panties only, and not on the road like this, when he was supposed to be sharp. On the job. Taking care of things. Taking care of Sam.
"Bed," said Sam, stripping off his clothes with jerky movements that decided Dean, who went over to the AC and moved the dials till he thought the air coming out wasn't quite so cool.
Then he slipped into the bed nearest him, completely forgetting whether it was the bed he'd selected or not, and felt Sam's weight falling in beside him. Sam turned towards him, limp, like he was asleep already, falling against him, boneless. Warm. Dean let him, let the long arm flop over him, and settled, back against the mattress, head in the pillow. Let the weight and the warmth and the heavy breathing of a drunk Sam lull him.
In the morning, there would be hell to pay, with heads feeling like smashed melons and bodies aching with whatever as yet unknown bruises they'd incurred in the dark. On the stone. In the forest. Drinking bee mead and singing to the moon. But for now he felt loved and quiet and still. Floating on glassy-smooth water, with sweet, warm air draping over his skin, and the butterscotch-golden sun moving through the blue. A good trip. A good day. Sam's mouth, and the sweetness of the mead. Sam's breath now, streaming across his cheek. A shape in the darkness that was never going to let him roam far, but rather, would keep him close and safe. Under watchful eyes, green flecked with gold, like the sun reflecting off bits of mica at the edges of a cool, slow-moving river. A river, he realized, with the only part of his brain that was still awake, that he never wanted to leave.
Oh, moon. Oh Sam.
This story has a sequel called Desert Water.